How some old conversations with Zach Wilson convinced Gunner Romney to return to BYU

Romney’s decision to play a fifth year could change the dynamic of the Cougars’ passing attack.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gunner Romney at BYU Spring football practice, on Thursday, March 17, 2022.

There were conversations in the fall of 2018 — back when the names Zach Wilson, Dax Milne and Gunner Romney carried a lot less weight in Provo — that would shape the calculus of BYU’s offense in 2022.

In the dorm room that Romney and Wilson shared, and Milne often frequented, the trio of incoming freshmen talked about wanting to play in the NFL. Maybe, they thought, they would all enter the league together.

And four years later, two of them did. Wilson went as the No. 2 overall pick to the Jets. Milne went as the seventh-round pick to the Commanders. But one of them stayed back, and it was because of the trust he had built with those conversations.

When Romney’s turn came to decide whether to stay at BYU or leave for the NFL, he leaned heavily on Wilson’s and Milne’s opinions. They knew his aspirations, but also knew his skillset. That he was a cuspy NFL draft pick: talented but injury prone. And after consulting with them, he decided to stick around for one more year.

“I talked to [them] about the entire process, the entire thing,” Romney said. “And, you know, that really helped me with my decision and helped me know what I need to prepare for. The opportunity to play in the NFL was right there for me and you know, that’s something that’s really hard to turn down.”

So Romney is back for his fifth season at BYU. It is setting up to be a year that is part personal project — of upping his draft stock — and part boost to BYU’s offense.

He will be the clear-cut No. 1 receiver on an offense already returning 80% of its production. With Jaren Hall in his second year at quarterback, and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick in his second year at the helm, Romney was the missing piece to complete the continuity.

And this year, with arguably the toughest schedule of the independence era for BYU, continuity on the offensive side will be needed more than ever.

“[He] is clearly our veteran guy [with Puka Nacua],” Roderick said on bringing back a player with 38 games of experience. “The wide receiving room is deep.”

On the personal side for Romney, this season will be about correcting his biggest flaws. The most pressing of those will be staying healthy.

Romney hasn’t played a full season yet since arriving at BYU. He played eight games last year after having an early season knee injury. He played 10 the year before that. At the NFL level, he knows an injury prone, older player is not desirable.

And the second part of the equation is showing explosiveness as an athlete. He’s above-average as a deep threat in BYU’s offense. Last year, he averaged 17.5 yards per catch. In 2020, he nearly averaged 20 yards per reception.

But there are plenty of athletes at the next level who can be down-field options. The separation will be turning smaller plays into first downs. It is something Milne, a similarly fringe NFL player, has done to stick in the NFL.

“I think my biggest strength is obvious,” Romney said of his self-evaluation. “But I want to be able to make [more] out of the shorter plays. So catching the 5-yard route and turning that into [something]. Or just being more explosive with my yards after catch and things like that.”

By his assessment, his explosiveness will be enhanced by staying healthy. He changed his approach this offseason by taking more time when his body is worn down. In previous years, he might have forced himself to lift or practice when his body wasn’t feeling well.

The injuries he’s had were mostly fluke plays, he says, and hard to prevent. In the first game of the season last year, a defender rolled up on his leg and hurt his knee. A similar play happened in 2020.

“I’m taking a more mature approach with my health,” Romney said. “I think if I would have stayed healthy, not just last season but the season before, I would have been gone already.”

But for now he is back, and with that he hopes will come a boost to both him and the team. It might be rare to return a player with 1,900 yards, but BYU’s offense will certainly take it.