While the running back room is full of depth, it may not be the most talented group on BYU’s roster. That title seems to be owned by the receiver group.
Sure, the loss of Dax Milne will cause a learning curve, but BYU was able to bring in enough talent to replace the loss of production. And wide receiver coach Fesi Sitake said it won’t be anything compared to the previous year, when the Cougars lost their top three receivers.
“We’ve always just had to make with what we’ve had, and credit to the guys who have always been there ready to step up and go,” Sitake said. “We’re going to miss Dax, but we also have a lot of confidence in this group that the next man is going to be up. We got a lot of guys to pick from, so it’s a good situation.”
After a breakout junior season, in which Milne recorded 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns on 70 receptions, the Bingham High product was selected late in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL draft by Washington.
But BYU had top wideouts Gunner Romney (767 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Neil Pau’u (603 yards, 4 touchdowns) return. There’s additional talent in the wide receiver room with youngsters Kody Epps and Keanu Hill, and junior Chris Jackson.
Sitake said Romney and Pau’u are proven veterans on the offense, but a lot of guys excelled in spring ball and had a lot of production.
As far as who will earn the starting role, Sitake said it will come down to who puts in the work on their own over the summer and show what they can do come August when fall camp starts.
“From there, it’s a training ground,” Sitake said. “We have about three and a half weeks to see who’s going to emerge and step up and take the bulk of the reps throughout the season as long as they stay healthy. And that includes Gunner and Neil — they know that. They thrive with competition. They know they have the upper hand on things because they’re proven guys and experience, and I give them that. But they also know that they’ve got to keep progressing and working to do all that.”
The competition becomes even tougher with the addition of the Nakua brothers. Samson previously played for rival Utah and is joining the Cougars as a grad transfer, and Puka transferred from Washington as a sophomore.
During his time at Utah, Samson totaled 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns on 82 receptions in 45 career games. In two seasons at Washington, Puka averaged 19.9 yards per reception for a total of 319 yards and three touchdowns.
They are both expected to be part of BYU’s rotation.
“They just bring in another added element of toughness,” Sitake said. “Those guys love football. They come from a football family. They play with passion and they’re super physical. They bring experience. They bring leadership. … Both really, really talented players who enjoy playing the game of football.”
And if the wideouts weren’t enough, BYU also has star power among the tight ends.
Last season, as a freshman, Isaac Rex dazzled as he scored the most touchdowns of any receiver (12). The San Clemente, Calif., native was able to take a bigger role with the Cougars because senior Matt Bushman suffered a season-ending injury a week before the 2020 season started.
Behind Rex, there’s Masen Wake, who became known for his high-flying antics. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound sophomore would hurdle over defenders as he made his way down the field.
Between the wideouts and tight ends, BYUs receivers may be the most solid group of the bunch. Whichever quarterback wins the starting role, left open by Zach Wilson’s departure to the NFL, should have all the tools needed to continue to produce a strong air raid for the Cougars.
“I think you’ll see a lot of the same things as last year, but featuring different guys [and] maybe a couple of wrinkles in some of the plays,” Sitake said. “I’m hopeful that our receivers and tight ends will be a huge part of our offensive production because we have the weapons to get that type of production and to feature those types of guys. It’s what we did a lot of last year, so I think you’ll see a lot of similarities, maybe with some new faces.”