Here’s how the BYU Cougars will replace NFL-bound pass-catchers Dax Milne and Matt Bushman
New passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake has done this before, replacing three seniors who departed after the 2019 season with 2020 stars Gunner Romney, Neil Pau’u and Dax Milne
New BYU passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, who remains the Cougars’ receivers coach, has had to replace some star pass-catchers before.
Like last year, when Micah Simon, Aleva Hifo and Talon Shumway all graduated, and tight end Matt Bushman sustained a season- and college career-ending injury in fall camp.
So, when Sitake got news that Bushman and BYU’s most prolific receiver during its 11-1 season, junior Dax Milne, were turning pro, he didn’t break into a cold sweat.
“We are going to miss Dax (Milne). I am so happy for him. He had an unbelievable season. But as it has been here for awhile, it is ‘next man up,’ and see how they can roll.” — BYU receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake
“Losing Dax, we lose a lot of production,” Sitake said last week via Zoom when his new role was announced. “But we lost way more last year, with Micah, Aleva and Talon leaving. And other guys were able to step up. I feel like we can do the same thing again.”
Milne’s story about turning down scholarship offers at smaller schools so he could walk on at BYU has been well-documented. After catching just 31 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns combined his first two seasons playing behind the aforementioned terrific trio, he became a candidate for the Burlsworth Trophy (top former walk-on) in 2020 by making 70 catches for 1,188 yards and eight TDs his junior season.
“We are going to miss Dax,” Sitake said. “I am so happy for him. He had an unbelievable season. But as it has been here for a while, it is ‘next man up,’ and see how they can roll.”
Two proven receivers return: seniors Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney, who got off to a hot start and was one of the nation’s leaders in yards per catch before injuries slowed him down significantly. Pau’u was second in receptions with 45 and third in receiving yards with 603, while Romney was second in receiving yards with 767 and third in receptions with 39.
“So Neil and Gunner are definitely the staples, moving forward,” Sitake said. “And through spring and summer training and fall camp, we will see who emerges as that solid third (receiver) and see which other guys might be able to rotate in.”
For top candidates for the two-deep, look first at the scholarship receivers: senior Chris Jackson, junior Brayden Cosper and sophomores Kody Epps and Keanu Hill.
Sitake said those four were “ready to go” last season, but “whether it was due to injuries, or their performance, or other players ahead of them doing well,” they didn’t see the field a lot. Jackson had six catches for 22 yards, Epps had five for 47 yards, Hill had four catches for 70 yards and a touchdown and Cosper had four catches for 36 yards.
Freshman Miles Davis, who saw time at running back, caught four passes for 43 yards.
Sitake said three-star receiver Chase Roberts, the former American Fork High star who turned down several Pac-12 offers to sign with BYU before a church mission to Canada, will return in March and join the team after spring camp.
“Chase Roberts is going to add some value as well,” Sitake said. “He will join us in the summer, after he gets back and gets in shape and everything. We are excited for him.”
The Cougars have already done a masterful job replacing Bushman, a three-year starter who recently confirmed he will move on to the NFL rather than stick around for an NCAA-granted extra year. Isaac Rex stepped in and became a Freshman All-American, finishing with 37 catches for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Rex tied for third nationally in TD catches with Arkansas State’s Jonathan Adams and Florida’s Kyle Pitts.
Sophomore Carter Wheat (four catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) and junior fullback/tight end Masen Wake (eight catches, 114 yards, 1 TD) return to back up Rex. Sophomore Dallin Holker, who caught 19 passes for 235 yards and a TD in 2018 before a church mission to Chile, is scheduled to rejoin the team, giving BYU perhaps the deepest tight end setup in the country.
“That tight end room, there is a lot of weapons in there, and there are a lot of personality types, skillsets, bodies that we can continue to use to be multiple on offense and give defenses a hard time,” Sitake said. “We have enough receiving threats there. We have enough maulers.”
How will Sitake’s role change?
New offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said the title of “passing game coordinator” is “just a title in some programs and really doesn’t matter,” but at BYU he was given major responsibilities by then-offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and he plans to pass those on to Sitake.
“He will have the lead on ideas in the passing game, if we want to do anything new, if anything needs to be fixed. He will take the lead on that,” Roderick said. “I have tons of confidence in him that he is ready for that. We pretty much think with the same brain anyway when it comes to the passing game. I have been coaching him since Southern Utah when he was a freshman.”
Sitake said Roderick allowed him to help significantly when he was just the receivers coach and the two collaborated on a lot of ideas and schemes, so he expects that relationship to continue.
“Now that I have that title, I am going to take a more active role in that,” Sitake said. “I don’t think we will skip a beat in terms of the passing game just because he has been so great incorporating me in the past.”
And he’s broken in a new set of receivers before.