Provo • Eight different receivers started in games for the BYU Cougars last season, partly due to injuries, but mostly because the coaching staff’s strategy was to shuttle guys in and out so they could be fresh to run their routes and block on running plays.
BYU didn’t have anything close to a go-to receiver; The leading pass-catcher was actually a tight end, Matt Bushman, who caught 29 passes for 511 yards and two touchdowns. The receiver with the most catches and yards was Aleva Hifo, who caught 28 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns.
That spread-the-ball mentality brought mixed results for an offense that was ranked 100th in the country in total yards (364.9 yards per game) and will be scrapped, receivers coach Fesi Sitake said midway through spring practices.
Those practices wrapped up Thursday. The Cougars will begin player-run workouts next week, outside the coaching staff’s direction, and won’t assemble as a team again until preseason camp in late July.
“I told the guys very clearly that, hey, this year, I don’t want to be rotating constantly every three or four plays, and by committee every week,” said the cousin of head coach Kalani Sitake. “I still want them to have the mentality that any week they could lose their job. But I want them to have the peace of mind that if they work for it, they will get a lot of reps.”
Fesi Sitake said all the receivers “understand the message and they are all on board with it.”
Third-leading receiver Dylan Collie (24 catches, 277 yards, 3 TDs), who will participate in BYU’s Pro Day on Friday, is the only significant loss from the 2018 group. Akile Davis (four catches, 47 yards) plans to leave as a graduate-transfer, but hadn’t found a landing spot as of Monday.
Two receivers who saw playing time last season — senior Hifo and junior Inoke Lotulelei — did not participate in spring practices, due to offseason surgeries. Hifo, certainly, is a candidate to be one of those go-to guys in 2019.
“I can’t wait to get Matt Bushman (also out this spring after shoulder surgery) and Aleva HIfo back to join this group,” Kalani Sitake said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I think they will help make us a really good football team this fall.”
Much-hyped sophomore Gunner Romney, who appeared in only nine games last season due to a lingering hamstring injury and caught only 13 passes for 162 yards, is also a candidate to be quarterback Zach Wilson’s favorite target. Romney had a fantastic spring, by most accounts.
“He has been what we all knew he could be for us,” Fesi Sitake said of Romney. “He has got a whole new level of confidence that has mainly stemmed from his work in the weight room. He’s ready, and he’s strong. We have seen that confidence translate to the field, and a whole new level of speed he didn’t play with last year.”
After he led the offense on four touchdown drives in the spring scrimmage, including a 34-yard TD strike to Romney, backup quarterback Jaren Hall said the receiving corps will be a strength of the team, a sentiment that hasn’t existed the past couple of years.
“Our receivers are as sharp as it gets,” Hall said. “They know what they are doing. They understand the offense. It is like having the other quarterbacks on the field at that position. You can always count on them. It is going to be fun to play with them.”
Asked about Romney’s play, Kalani Sitake said: “Yeah, I love him. We gotta get him the ball more.”
Seniors Talon Shumway (22 catches, 337 yards, 3 TDs in 2018) and Micah Simon (12-107), junior Neil Pau’u (18-216) and sophomore Dax Milne (10-69) are the other top candidates to be in the tightened rotation. Fesi Sitake said if the 6-foot-4, 223-pound Pau’u gets much bigger, he could possibly play tight end.
“He has increased his mass, and is one of the most improved guys in the weight room,” Fesi Sitake said of Pau’u, a former high school quarterback.
Simon, a team captain last year, is the group’s vocal leader. Shumway is the quiet leader.
“Everyone feeds off those two,” Fesi Sitake said.
None of the 17 returned missionaries who have played in spring practices or are expected to join the program in the fall are receivers. However, 6-3, 190-pound freshman receiver Keanu Hill of Trinity High in Euless, Texas, will arrive this summer along with athletes Javelle Brown and Luc Andrada, whose positions aren’t clear yet.
“Keanu is a big, big physical presence,” Fesi Sitake said. “He could come in and have a good role.”
BYU’s key returning receivers in 2019
• Aleva Hifo, Sr., 5-foot-10, 190 lbs.
• Talon Shumway, Sr., 6-3, 212
• Micah Simon, Sr., 6-1, 190
• Neil Pau’u, Jr., 6-4, 223
• Gunner Romney, Soph., 6-3, 198
• Dax Milne, Soph., 6-0, 184
• Inoke Lotulelei, Jr., 5-9, 190
• Koy Harris, RS Fr., 6-1, 175
• Brayden Cosper, RS Fr., 6-3, 212
• Austin Whetzel, Jr., 5-11, 175