BYU football receiving corps looks to utilize full potential
As BYU football looks to maintain its scoring prowess on offense in 2021, the current crop of pass-catchers raises a series of questions.
What impact will Pac-12 transfers Puka and Samson Nacua have on the field? Can Gunner Romney stay healthy for a full season? What will Isaac Rex do for an encore after a breakout freshman season? Who will step up to replace NFL draftee Dax Milne and his 1,100-plus receiving yards?
With a quarterback competition underway headed into training camp, the Cougars are counting on their crowded group of wide receivers and tight ends to keep the transition into the post-Zach Wilson era as smooth as possible.
Minus Milne, the Cougars return three of their top four leading receivers from 2020 in Romney, junior Neil Pau’u and redshirt freshman tight end Rex. The trio combined for 121 catches a season ago, with Rex accounting for 12 touchdown grabs on his own.
Having both put up career highs in receptions and yards in 2020, Romney and Pau’u will be tasked with heading up the group as the most experienced veteran leaders, a role that wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake said they’ve taken in stride.
“Guys like Gunner and Neil have no insecurities about new guys coming in, they’ve accepted them with open arms, have taught them things and have been getting them on board,” Sitake said. “It’s been really cool to just see the team chemistry of these guys.”
Two of the “new guys” are brothers Samson and Puka Nacua, who took many by surprise when they both transferred to BYU this past spring from Utah and Washington, respectively. Raised in Provo, the Nacuas follow in the footsteps of their older brother Kai, who starred as a safety for the Cougars from 2013-2016.
“They’re both experienced players, and they’ve been part of a college program already so the learning curve isn’t as steep,” Sitake said of the Nacuas. “I’ve been really impressed at how quickly they’ve picked up our offense.”
Samson arrives as a graduate transfer, logging over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons for the Utes. A star at nearby Orem high school, Puka earned first team All-American prep honors from USA Today in 2018 before signing with Washington for two brief seasons where he tallied 16 catches. The brothers both said they’ve enjoyed getting to know their new teammates and are ready to work to contribute with them.
“You see what they did here last year, and that doesn’t come as a fluke,” Samson said. “You’ve got to be working hard in order to do that.”
Other options at receiver include Hobbs Nyberg, Keanu Hill, Brayden Cosper, junior college transfer Chris Jackson and walk-ons Talmage Gunther, Tanner Wall and others. The depth chart may be crowded, but Sitake is a fan of the talent within his unit.
“I have some hard (depth chart) decisions to make, but that’s a problem I like to have,” Sitake said. “They’re special athletes and special people.”
On the tight end side of the equation, the Cougars have the 6-foot-6 Rex, who unexpectedly stepped into the starting role a season ago and became one of Wilson’s favorite end zone targets. Tying for the nationwide lead in touchdown grabs by a tight end in 2020, Rex returns as one of the most highly-touted players at the position in all of college football. However, the accolades and recognition haven’t kept Rex from working to further perfect his craft.
“He looks more explosive,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said of Rex. “We’ve spent time working together learning the intricacies of the offense that he was thrown into last year, so we’re getting to be more detailed in his techniques both in the run and the passing game.”
Sitake credits Rex for improving his route running ability, understanding of defense coverages and overall football IQ to compliment his tremendous size advantage and physical traits.
“I’ve been really impressed by his work ethic,” Sitake said. “He’s so big and fast, and I think most of his life he’s just been able to win because of his size and speed, but he’s as aware as anyone that as he continues to advance, competition will continue to get better. He’s really taken it upon himself to get better at his position.”
Paired with Rex at tight end is sophomore Dallin Holker, who hauled in 19 catches for 235 yards as a freshman in 2018 before leaving to serve a mission in Chile. The Lehi native returned to the team in time for spring practices, where he stood out as one of the top performers on offense despite a two-year absence.
“Dallin proved himself as a true freshman and showcased what he could do in our offense, so he and (Rex) will compliment each other really well,” Sitake said.
Also featured in the tight end rotation are fullback hybrid Mason Wake and powerful blocker Carter Wheat, giving the Cougars even more possibilities to spread the ball all over the field.
“When you have so many weapons, it’s hard for a defense to really game plan for that and to try to stop all the different packages,” Rex said.
From a passing standpoint, the depth and experience in the receiving group will be a benefit to whoever wins BYU’s quarterback sweepstakes.
“It’s good for all of the quarterbacks that there are so many weapons on the perimeter this year,” quarterback Baylor Romney said. “It gives me a lot of confidence as a quarterback to know that guys are going to make plays to win their one-on-one matchups, and it’s going to show in the outcome of games.”
The Cougars averaged eight different receivers recording catches in each game last season, and Sitake hopes to continue to get the most out of the deep group of pass-catchers this fall.
“Every one of our guys brings something different to the table and could play at any given time,” Sitake said.