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Why optics are so important following BYU’s successful 11-win campaign

When the Nacua brothers — Samson and Puka — announced they are BYU-bound, it put the Cougar offense in the spotlight

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Orem High School football player Puka Nacua is pictured at Orem High School on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Nacua announced this week that he is transferring from Washington to BYU. His brother, Samson, a Ute receiver, also let it be known he will be taking his show to Provo.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Playing time as a BYU receiver just moved into the dogfight file.

Former walk-on gold find Dax Milne (70 catches 1,188 yards, 8 TDs in 2020) entered his name for the NFL draft and receivers coach Fesi Sitake will dearly miss his playmaking abilities.

But this week, as Sitake busily worked with returning stars Neil Pau’u (45 catches, 603 yards, 4 TDs) and Gunner Romney (39 catches, 767 yards, 2 TDs) and welcomed back talented Chase Roberts from church missionary service, while heralded freshman Kody Epps nursed an injury, two P5 transfers dropped out of the sky right onto his lunch plate.

Then, to make things even more complicated, or nice, the man who first “discovered” Milne is having a trio of preferred walk-ons step in with limited reps and make plays in spring practice. Guys like Hobbs Nyberg, Kade Moore and Tanner Wall.

This isn’t considering that the ball must be shared with 12-touchdown 2020 catcher sophomore-to-be Isaac Rex, and talented tight end Dallin Holker, who is soon to join the team after a mission.

Sitake may be going cross-eyed keeping tabs, keeping players happy, but for sure he’s grinning like a fat cat with feathers poking out the side of his mug.

Sitake’s got more bodies lined up than cars at a Chick-fil-A drive-thru.

Two brothers, receivers Samson (Utah) and Puka Nacua (Washington) transferred to BYU and are working on admission papers for summer enrollment. 

That’s like rent-a-cop security at the mall adding two special forces soldiers.

BYU coaches cannot comment on the Nacua brothers until papers are filed and stamped, but that doesn’t stop Sitake from counting his chips and skipping to the cashier.

Because Milne had a huge breakout year in 2020, Sitake’s eagle-eye walk-on acumen keeps getting redlined. People keep asking who the next Milne will be.

“I’ve been asked that a couple of times, and the only reason I say a guy can be another Dax, would be in terms of if he is a walk-on that has a chance to excel, earn a scholarship and have an impact on the team,” said Sitake.

OK, now he’s categorizing what a “Dax” is. He has to.

Sitake put it this way: There will only be one Dax.

“Dax is Dax and there never will be another Dax, just like there won’t be another Neil Pau’u or Gunner Romney because they will all be unique in their own way.”

But of the walk-ons he has now, Moore, Nyberg and Talmage Gunther, he says, all of them have had a very promising spring. 

“All of them have a chance to have an impactful role on this team. Tanner Wall is going to need reps, but Hobbs and Kade are probably the most seasoned and experienced and capable of earning a scholarship.”

These comments were a week ago. This Thursday he met with reporters on a Zoom call and again received a request to break down his walk-ons who had been admired by tight end Isaac Rex.

Why is this news?

Well, it’s a couple of things: optics and system.

First, the Dax Milne phenomenon gave the Cougar offense a nice peek back at an Austin Collie-type performance, great route running, tremendous hands and touchdowns. It is a skill development success. Collie had Max Hall. Milne had Zach Wilson.

Second, it speaks to the morphing offense.

The ball is in the air, and that is a prime reason the Nacua brothers left Utah and Washington. Receivers like to be targeted.

Head coach Kalani Sitake has worked very hard for years to get his offensive coaches to let it fly and aggressively challenge defenses.

Former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, now at Baylor, got that message and worked on it. Current coordinator and former passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick knew the nuts and bolts and helped polish a system during a COVID-19 schedule in 2020.

With no Grimes or offensive line coach Eric Mateos at the Boca Raton Bowl in December, Roderick, Fesi Sitake and tight ends coach Steve Clark had it all in their hands. 

That BYU win over Central Florida produced 655 total yards by BYU’s offense, 214 on the ground and 441 in the air.

Of course, the defenses Roderick and company face in 2021 will be tougher, deeper, faster and more talented and it will be harder to achieve those numbers.

Critics are glib about predictions that BYU’s offensive train will go off the rails in 2021 — that their comeuppance is on the horizon, just wait and see.

Maybe.

But it’s the optics that are working for Fesi Sitake and Roderick right now in recruiting, thus the chatter about something that is usually a nonstory: walk-ons.

Then you have the Nacua migration.

And this: In a lead-up to BYU’s pro day on March 26, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the No. 1 pick, are sending Wilson their playbook, getting Wilson multiple Zoom meetings and phone calls from new head coach Urban Meyer, passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Optics.

An interesting spring, indeed.