BYU junior receiver Neil Pau’u sat in front of junior defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea during Monday’s news conference in Provo. So when Fauatea was asked who he’s seen improve the most during fall camp, he smiled and called out Pau’u’s name.
But Fauatea’s praise wasn’t just because of proximity.
“Every time they throw the ball, I see No. 2 catch it,” Fauatea said, referring to Pau’u’s jersey number. “Somehow, he’s always open. Even difficult passes or difficult catches, I’ve seen Neil Pau’u.”
Case in point: Shortly after media was allowed onto the Student Athletic Building’s second floor balcony to observe the end of the Cougars’ first fall camp practice, Pau’u quickly quieted reporters by making an impressive touchdown catch from Jaren Hall, who’s in the middle of his own position battle.
Pau’u has been sharp throughout the first week of camp, eager to win that starting position.
Dax Milne traded the blue and white BYU uniform for one that features more burgundy and gold after getting drafted to the NFL by the Washington Football Team. That means the Cougars enter the 2021 season without the nearly 1,200 receiving yards of production Milne provided. They won’t have his ability to serve as an occasional ball carrier, where he gained 67 yards on 11 carries last year.
But BYU’s receivers might be the deepest and most experienced position group on the team.
“That room is really deep right now,” quarterback Baylor Romney said Monday.
A big reason for that depth is Pau’u. The California native is entering his fifth season with the Cougars, and has increased his production every year since his freshman season in 2017.
In 2020, Pau’u’s breakout year led him to 603 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches, averaging 13.4 yards per catch. He’ll likely lead a group that also features Gunner Romney, who had the second-most receiving yards last year with 767, but six fewer catches two fewer touchdowns than Pau’u.
Pau’u knows how stacked BYU’s receiver group is heading into the team’s season opener at Arizona. He said the biggest strength he sees in the lot — which includes brothers Puka and Samson Nacua — is a strong mentality through dealing with some injuries.
“The mentality to just to come in and continue just to stay focused and locked in and grind I think is probably the biggest thing,” Pau’u said.
Pau’u hasn’t only improved as a football player, but also a man. He pleaded guilty to impaired driving in July 2019 after being arrested on BYU’s campus. He cashed in his redshirt year and spent it on probation, describing the time period as “tough and lonely,” and came out the other side with a productive 2020.
The Cougars have a new offensive coordinator in Aaron Roderick, who served as the team’s quarterbacks coach before replacing Jeff Grimes after the latter departed for Baylor. Pau’u seems to like the early returns just a few practices into the new season.
“[Roderick] is probably a little more aggressive,” Pau’u said. “It’s just good to see. I love when the ball’s in the air. We get to go make plays.”
The BYU depth chart is in its infancy with so many position battles. And the same goes for the receiver group at this point in the practice schedule. Roderick has his work cut out for him.
“Our receiver depth is the best it’s been since I’ve been here,” Roderick said.
But with a schedule that promises to be more difficult than last year’s, the Cougars could use another stellar year from Pau’u. And if his career is any indication, BYU might just get it.