As BYU’s 2021 football season unfolded, receivers such as Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney, Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua emerged to complement superstar running back Tyler Allgeier and capable quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney to keep the Cougars’ offense purring along.
Still, fans kept wondering about a couple of highly recruited receivers — Kody Epps and Chase Roberts — who were not getting a chance to make much of an impact, mostly due to the prowess of the aforementioned pass-catchers, but also because they were both recovering from injuries and surgeries that slowed their progress last fall.
Roberts, the former three-star prospect from American Fork High who returned from a church mission at this time a year ago, and Epps, one of the most prolific receivers in California high school football history, recently spoke to the Deseret News about last season and what they hope to accomplish in 2022.
“Of course, I want to be in that top three group. I want it to be Gunner (Romney) and Puka (Nacua) and me. But I think there are a lot of great wide receivers this year, the best we have had in the past while.” — BYU freshman receiver Chase Roberts
Bottom line is that with Samson Nacua and Pau’u graduating and giving professional football a shot, there is a clear opening for a third starting receiver in offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick’s attack. Along with Epps and Roberts, candidates to fill that void include promising sophomore Keanu Hill, oft-injured junior Brayden Cosper, versatile athlete Terence Fall and walk-ons such as Hobbs Nyberg, Tanner Wall, Kade Moore and Talmage Gunther.
“Of course, I want to be in that top three group,” said the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Roberts. “I want it to be Gunner and Puka and me. But I think there are a lot of great wide receivers this year, the best we have had in the past while.”
Epps, 5-11 and 185 pounds, echoed what Roberts said.
“Yeah, I think it is a great opportunity for all of us to not just compete, but push each other at the same time,” Epps said. “It is definitely an open spot, a big role that we need to fill with those two guys leaving. I definitely want to be a part of that mix and fill in those shoes.”
Here’s a closer look at what has slowed each prized recruit’s progress:
Roberts returns rusty and needing surgery
Toward the end of his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Roberts determined that he needed hip surgery. It was scheduled to take place as soon as he got back home last April.
“It wasn’t until a couple weeks before fall camp that I got healthy and ready to go,” he said. “It was rough getting back.”
Roberts was put on the scout team — which goes against the first team defense in practices — and at first it was a little hard to take for a scholarship player, but looking back he believes it helped in his development.
“It was the best thing for me, honestly, to be able to go against some of the starting guys and see where I am at, build up, lift with the developmental group, get my legs stronger, get back into it,” he said.
Roberts dressed out for the final five games and saw some action on the field, but didn’t catch a pass.
“I was trying to be patient,” he said. “Of course you want to play, and even when your legs aren’t fully there, you want to be in there and contribute to the games, of course.”
It will be counted as Roberts’ redshirt year, so he still has four years of eligibility remaining. He enters spring ball weighing 205 pounds, which is where he wants to be. He hasn’t quite regained his 4.4 speed, but he’s close.
“It has been almost a year since I have been home,” home said. “I feel like that’s when you get your legs back completely. I am feeling 95, almost 100, percent. … I want to get down to a 4.4 (in the 40) time. That’s when you really start moving on the field, and the scouts start looking at you.”
Roberts said he’s talked to Gunner Romney a lot about what it takes to contribute at this level. In particular, Romney has told him to learn the plays inside and out and be able to play all three receiving positions.
“His advice is to give the coaches confidence in me so that they can throw me anywhere on the field and I can make a play and know what I am doing,” Roberts said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from Gunner.”
Foot injury made Epps absent in 2021
Epps was just starting to come into his own as a freshman in 2020 when he cracked a sesamoid bone in his big toe a few days before the Cougars made the trip to play Coastal Carolina. He had appeared in six games and caught five passes for 47 yards before the injury.
“The ball of your foot has two little bones,” he explained. “One of mine was cracked in two. So they had to go in there, take that one out, and then it had to heal.”
Before the injury, Epps says he was learning a lot from the likes of quarterback Zach Wilson and receiver Dax Milne, who are both now in the NFL. It was serious enough to make him miss the entire 2021 season.
He is back this spring, and he is already making big plays in practice.
“He is a really, really good route runner,” Romney said.
Is he ready to fulfill the promise that accompanied him out of Mater Dei High School in the Los Angeles area? He caught 93 passes for 1,735 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior and was named a USA Today First Team All-American.
Kody Epps told the media yesterday that he cracked a sesamoid bone in his big toe before the Coastal Carolina game and that's why we didn't get to see him at all last year.— Benjamin Criddle (@CriddleBenjamin) March 9, 2022
Anyone out there that has had a big toe injury? No joke.. it sucks.. pic.twitter.com/XF9NJ1qOe8
“I wouldn’t necessarily say, yeah, this will be my breakout year, but I am just trying to get on the field and do what I need to to help my team win, just be on the field,” Epps said. “The last couple of years it has been kinda rough, just watching from the distance.
“But being there in the locker room and doing that type of stuff (has helped),” he continued. “My biggest thing, man, is just doing the best I can do to get on the field and stay healthy throughout the season and be ready to go.”
Epps isn’t the biggest or the fastest player on the team, but he’s determined and has a knack for getting open, receivers coach Fesi Sitake said in January.
Epps said defensive back Quenton Rice and running back Miles Davis are the fastest “long distance” runners on the team.
“Short distance? Probably Jake Boren,” he said. “Jake Boren is a speedster.” Boren is a walk-on defensive back and special teams ace from Salt Lake City’s Highland High.
Off the field, Epps says he has adjusted well to Provo’s cold winters and BYU’s stringent academic requirements.
“Provo is cool, chill, laid-back,” he said. “You just focus on school and do sports and focus on your teammates, of course. Everything is going good.”
He made the honor roll last semester, and his goal is to be accepted into the business school’s entrepreneurship program.
“I will apply to the business school, and with the grace of God and some hard work, I will be in the business program,” he said.