PROVO — No question about it, senior Matt Bushman is going to be the BYU offense’s go-to guy this season, after the 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end returned for a final year of college football when he likely would have been taken in last April’s NFL draft.
But what about the receivers? Is there a go-to guy in this group to fill the shoes of three graduated seniors, most notably versatile playmaker Aleva Hifo?
“I can do it,” says junior receiver Gunner Romney. “We had that trio of senior receivers last year that really dominated, and they all left. So it left a huge opening or me to step up. I have been here a couple years and I have made contributions to the offense, but this year it is my opportunity to be that guy, to really be the No. 1 dude and the No. 1 playmaker on the outside.”
Barring any last-minute cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic, Romney will get the chance to show he can be “the man” among a deep but inexperienced receiving corps two weeks from Monday when the Cougars open against Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, in a Labor Day night special on ESPN.
The entire country — starved for college football after the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences pushed their seasons to the spring and other leagues moved their openers to later in September — could be watching. Romney knows that Cougar Nation will have its eyes glued on him, and he knows many are skeptical that he can become the next great BYU receiver.
Although he’s not a “big social media guy,” he has heard the whispers, listened to the grumblings. Stardom hasn’t accompanied the former three-star recruit from Chandler, Arizona, like many predicted it would when he chose the Cougars over several Pac-12 schools.
Romney hasn’t been a bust — he’s caught 44 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns to date in two seasons — but he hasn’t knocked distant-relative Mitt off the list of the country’s most famous Romneys, either.
“He’s got the tools to have a special season,” said receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who is also excited about the contributions Romney’s fellow junior receivers — Dax Milne and Neil Pau’u — can also make.
One problem is that injuries, mostly hamstring issues, have limited what Romney can do, especially his freshman season when he missed four games and caught just 13 passes for 162 yards and two TDS. He started camp on Aug. 4 with some of the same soft tissue injuries, but said on Aug. 17 that he is “back full-go, doing 100%” after “taking it easy” the first few weeks.
“For me personally it is a big opportunity,” Romney said, noting that he worked hard during the pandemic at home in Arizona with his brother, BYU quarterback Baylor Romney, and Baylor’s wife Elise, a record-setting pole-vaulter on BYU’s women’s track and field team.
“I already have that confidence and that experience from the last couple of years,” Gunner Romney continued. “It is fun. I am really looking forward to it. It is helping me with motivation. I am really going to work harder and be prepared because my number is going to be called a lot this year.”
Gunner Romney was probably the star of the B-Roll footage today.— Matthew Baiamonte (@baiamontematt) August 20, 2020
Another fantastic pass from Wilson.
Romney has been coming on strong as of late. He would be a huge weapon for this offense if fully healthy. @kslsports #BYU #GoCougs https://t.co/JzI6JhUQih pic.twitter.com/RcEvxIHze7
Speaking of his brother, who is battling Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall to be the Cougars’ starting quarterback against the Midshipmen on Sept. 7, Gunner said he is staying out of that particular fray.
“It is fun, because Baylor is my brother,” Gunner said. “ But when you get on the field, you don’t really have a relationship. I just want the quarterback who is going to be the best out there, no matter who it is. Whoever is going to get the ball to the receivers the best. They are all doing an amazing job right now. They are all splitting reps equally. As we get closer to fall camp ending, we will see who stands out.”
With Bushman around, and tights end coach Steve Clark having already said that the Cougars will use their leading pass-catcher each of the last three seasons until “he asks to come off the field,” Gunner knows that should open up the outside a bit more.
“This offense is really fun,” he said. “We move guys around a lot. So really I am playing all over the field right now. Most of the time I am playing outside receiver, the X receiver with the one-on-one matchups. That’s where I feel the most comfortable. But with this offense, I could be playing the No. 3 receiver at times. I could be playing the No. 2 receiver and just bumping around a lot. But I am mostly on the outside.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said last week that Romney, Milne and Pau’u have all improved, perhaps knowing there are catches to be had and a crop of newcomers that includes Kody Epps, Terence Fall, Miles Davis and junior college transfer Chris Jackson are eager to move into the two-deep.
“Yeah, we have a bunch of guys that fill a bunch of different roles,” Gunner said. “We have a lot of guys who can make plays down the field. We have a lot of big bodies that can make those tough catches, that can sort of bully DBs. We have a lot of bodies that are really quick who can get in and out of breaks, possession guys. We are a really diverse group all around and we have a lot of people who can fit into a lot of places.”