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Puka Nacua comes from a family of football players and he’s the best of the bunch

How Puka went from the youngest brother in a football family to the best shot of reaching NFL dreams

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Hawaii v Washington Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

If players were drafted into the NFL based on being the best high school player in the state of Utah, then Puka Nacua would have been a no-brain selection in the top-10. Over the four years since his dominance at Orem High School as a football, basketball, and track student-athlete, Nacua’s star has fallen a bit.

But the fifth round pick out of BYU has once again found the spotlight as perhaps the most notable rookie standout of the L.A. Rams offseason. Another few months like this and Nacua may do more than just make the 53-man roster, he could have a significant role in the offense by the end of the season, if not sooner.

How did it all start?

Family Tree

Puka Nacua was born May 29, 2001 to parents Lionel and Penina, and it was his father who practically turned the Nacua family into a direct pipeline for the BYU football team.

“Puka did have that,” Penina Nacua said of Lionel’s influence on their fifth child. “As Puka was getting older, playing football, my husband would always say, ‘I’ll take him to football.’ Even though he was working more and more, he’d make time to do pick up or drop off, and sometimes both.”

Lionel was Puka’s first Little League coach, he taught him how to break down film, and he predicted something about Puka that appears to be coming to fruition.

That prediction was that Puka would be the best football player in the family, no small feat for a Nacua; oldest brother Kai reached the NFL as a safety, spending some active roster time with the Colts, 49ers, and Jets, Isaiah Nacua also played defensive back in college, Samson Nacua, also a receiver, has made it as far as the USFL.

All three played at BYU. As you can imagine, it was a competitive household.

Growing up Nacua meant you got wrestled to the ground, or dunked on by an older brother, or accused of cheating at video games. That’s just the way it went in a family of six kids. Penina remembers the aftermath of the Sunday afternoon post-church naps. She felt the energy levels rising, and she knew her kids needed to get out.

Sometimes they’d go out on the driveway and split up into teams of three, and Penina would stand back and watch the chaos happily.

But Lionel, who died when Puka was 12, whispered a proclamation to his wife that is on the verge of becoming true, if it isn’t already.

“Puka is going to be the best one,” she recalled him saying. “Out of all my boys, he’ll be the best football player.”

Penina Nacua noted to Deseret News in 2018 that while his siblings were obsessed with cereal and cartoons, as most kids, Puka would rather watch football highlights and prepare for his next opportunity on the field. Though his older brothers were stars at their high schools and go onto play Division-I college football, none of them came close to the accomplishments of youngest brother Puka following in their footsteps, but Lionel was with them always.

“That first year (after his dad’s death) after a touchdown, Kai would always point up to the sky and remember his dad,” Penina Nacua said. “It was always kind of the same with the other boys, they would always have a fist to their heart and would look up to dad so they remember him all the time, every day.”

High School

The Nacuas moved to Utah after Lionel died in 2012, meaning that at times they would face off as members of rival high schools, which later led to Samson facing off against hometown BYU after he initially started his college career at Utah.

“Kai is kind of quiet, unless he needs to say something,” Puka said of the linebacker. “He’s kind of, I don’t know, he’s scary. He’s like the person in the back of the room and everyone knows who he is, but no one has the guts to approach him because they know he might kill you or something. That’s kind of how I think of Kai.”

He laughs.

“And then Samson is like the weird kid,” Puka says, then nearly loses his ability to talk as he laughs at Samson’s antics. “He dresses like a clown every day with his hair, and he’s just so outgoing. … Samson has always been outgoing ever since our first year of playing football. He’s just like, ‘I’ll talk to anybody and everybody; I love everybody.’ That’s just how he is.

After losing his father to diabetes, it seems that Puka had plenty of role models left to follow in his family, noting that he “looks up to (Kai) so much” and was beaming with pride as he fought for his NFL dream to make a practice squad after going undrafted. While Samson is the brother he’s closest to and that they “have a love-love relationship.”

With a father who taught him how to watch film and prepare properly, siblings who proved that there was no limit to what they could accomplish on a football field, and commitment to becoming the best player they he could become, Puka Nacua proved his father right that he would be the best in the family.

As a freshman at Orem in 2015, Nacua got off to a nice start with 22 catches for 254 yards and three touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Nacua set the tone for his season with six catches for 167 yards in his first game, finishing the year with 38 catches for 752 yards and five touchdowns. Puka had four 100-yard efforts that season.

But then something magical happened during his junior season, as Puka had 10 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1, followed by 13/156/2 in Week 2, and then 6/104/2 in Week 3 against Bakersfield. Nacua had 151 yards in Week 4, then 201 yards with four touchdowns in Week 5. In the third-to-last game of the season, Puka went off for 270 yards against Desert Hills and he finished his season with 87 catches for 1,690 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Said head coach Jeremy Hill at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 season, “Puka’s the man, that is what it is.”

His 24 touchdowns were tops in the state, as Orem won the state championship. “We’re on the top of the mountain right now,” says an interview with a bloody nose:

But his junior season was merely a teaser of what was to come. Yes, 1,691 yards and 24 touchdowns pales his comparison to what Puka Nacua did as a senior at Orem High School during the 2018-2019 season.

Now one of the top recruits in the state of Utah, Puka committed to USC between his junior and senior seasons after attending one of their camps and being told by head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin that he would “be a big deal for them”. At the time, Puka was not quite the number one recruit in the state, which belonged to defensive tackle Siaki Ika, a third round pick of the Browns this year.

Nacua also took unofficial visits to the campuses of Washington and California on his trip, following a stop at BYU, described by 247Sports as a “longtime suitor.”

By the end of his senior season, Puka would be the top recruit—and high school player—in the state.

Puka started his senior campaign with games of 162 yards, 195 yards, and 71 yards, scoring six touchdowns, but then he went off for 260 yards against Bishop Gorman and then 321 yards against Santa Margarita. He scored six touchdowns in those two games alone.

By the end of the season, Puka Nacua caught 103 passes for 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns, the latter two numbers being Utah state records. For his efforts, Puka was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Utah and he helped Orem win their second straight 4A state championship.

Lionel Nacua was most certainly right about his prediction that Puka Nacua would be the biggest standout in the family.

But after the season ended, Nacua declined to send in his national letter of intent for USC and flipped his recruitment to the University of Washington. Tee Martin was fired and (temporarily) replaced by Kliff Kingsbury (who was then hired by the Cardinals after an extremely brief stint), then by Graham Harrell. So instead, Puka chose Washington and an opportunity to play for Chris Petersen.

Soon enough, Puka would learn that most colleges go through staff shakeups all of the time.

Puka Nacua at Washington

Nacua easily became one of UW’s best receiver recruits of recent history.

In the end, UW got an outstanding prospect. Nacua is rated as the #8 receiver in the country by 247, which is likely more reputable than the consensus rank for a player who comes from Utah, where some of the smaller recruiting services do not allocate as many resources. He is listed at 6’2, 190 pounds, which gives him the prototypical size for a #1 receiver. He runs well, he blocks, and he has great hands. 247 compared him to a young Dante Pettis. It’s everything Husky fans could have wanted.

He was starting to show his stuff immediately after catching three passes for 97 yards on October 12, 2019 against Arizona.

The next week, Puka scored his second touchdown of the season in a loss to Oregon. But then in a game in which he would face brother Samson’s Utah Utes, he broke his foot and missed the remainder of his freshman campaign, finishing the year with seven catches in eight games.

Then came the 2020 pandemic, limiting Washington’s entire season to just four games. Instead of having the typical opportunity for a breakout season after triumphantly returning from his foot injury, Puka’s numbers don’t look as impressive: nine catches for 151 yards. But remember, the Huskies only played four games.

He had two games over 60 yards and if given a real opportunity, who knows what sophomore Puka could have done at Washington. We’ll never know, because Puka never played for the Huskies again.

Puka Nacua joins BYU “for momma”

In March of 2021, Puka officially announced his transfer back to hometown BYU, alongside his brother Samson, who would also be transferring from a Pac-12 school to the Cougars.

As the top receiver for quarterback Jaren Hall, Puka caught 43 passes for 805 yards and six touchdowns, while brother Samson had 21 for 329.

His top effort came against Baylor on October 16, 2021, gaining 168 yards on five catches.

Puka had four games over 100 yards and he caught all six of his touchdowns over the final seven games of the season. He would also become a consistent part of the BYU running game, carrying the ball 14 times for 148 yards, helping the team rank as high as 10th in the country at one point.

BYU didn’t have as good of a season in 2022, going 8-5, but Puka was on track to top all of his career-highs if not for missing several games with injury. He finished with a career-best 48 catches, gained 625 yards, and scored five touchdowns in only nine contests. But he ran for a career-high 25 carries and 209 yards, scoring five more times on the ground.

In a game against Arkansas, Puka had 141 receiving yards, scored a touchdown, and 20 rushing yards with two more touchdowns.

In four years of college, Puka Nacua had three different coaches, missed time with injury, missed games because of the pandemic, transferred, and still managed to go over 100 yards seven times in the last two seasons. He also got the chance to play with his brother so that they could entice grandma to come to their games.

“My dad, it kind of started with him,” said Puka, who was one of the highest recruited football players ever to come out of the state Utah. “Him having the idea that all of us brothers being able to play at the same school. It started with Kai coming here to BYU, but then my grandma, my mom’s mom, she used to come to my games in high school. But she was never a fan of going outside the house. But she said if we were to come play at BYU, she would be there every game. So, when she said that, we were like, OK, we’ll be there. We’ve always got to listen to mama. And then if mom’s mom says something, there is no hesitating there.”

With that experience under his belt, four years after being the most dominant receiver in the history of Utah high school football, Puka Nacua entered the 2023 NFL Draft to test his dreams of being the first player in the family to be drafted. Could the high school track star who broke a 46-year old record in the long jump do well enough with his athletic testing to get drafted?

Puka Nacua, draft prospect

At 6’2, 201 lbs, Puka has the size to play outside and to have an impact against NFL caliber cornerbacks. At the 2023 combine, he cited the Chiefs and Ravens as two teams who he had really good interviews with, but said there were also others. There was also talk of him “dominating” at the Senior Bowl.

But at his pro day, Nacua’s 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash wasn’t quite the number that would push him into the day two range for players of his size who also weren’t the most productive or healthiest in college. Essentially, you can only find three receivers from this year who posted a worse time at the combine than Nacua who were drafted: Michael Wilson (third round), Dontayvion Wicks (5th), and Jalen Brooks (7th).

His broad jump (121”) also left something to be desired and he didn’t post outstanding times in the three-cone and short shuttle, in spite of the fact that measurements are usually more generous at the pro day than at the combine.

These numbers are likely what scared off many teams from picking Nacua in the first four rounds, but at least teammate Cooper Kupp can relate. In 2017, Kupp ran a 4.62 and 1.62 10-yard split and he was at roughly the same size. This does not mean we should be comparing one of the best receivers of his generation against a rookie fifth round pick out of BYU who was not the absolutely dominant college player that Kupp was at Eastern Washington.

It just means that players don’t have to let themselves be defined by testing numbers.

Certainly, Puka hasn’t let that skepticism or doubt hold him back since being drafted by the L.A. Rams with the 177th pick.

Puka Nacua with the Rams

We don’t know what happens next with Puka, but he’s been the star of the show so far. Though Sean McVay has also praised the work of players like third round defensive tackle Kobie Turner, him, Matthew Stafford, and Kupp have all cited a stand out showing by Nacua this offseason.

If the Rams depth chart holds true through training camp and into the season, we know that Kupp is a receiver ahead of him. I’m not so sure that we know of a number two receiver though, and that includes Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell. L.A. is most likely going to start Jefferson next to Kupp, but if Van gets off to another slow start then what’s the point of holding back potential competition?

Atwell is more likely to take on a different role than all other receivers simply because of his size. Ben Skowronek is missing time with injury. Demarcus Robinson and Tyler Johnson, two free agent signees, are still proving they will have a role. It may not be long before Puka could be getting targets from Stafford, if not taking handoffs out of the backfield.

Maybe we’ll never see a 200-300 yard receiving effort from Puka Nacua like he had in high school. But his father was right. Puka is built different.