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Is Puka Nacua the best wide receiver talent BYU has seen in a decade, or even more?

BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua runs after making a catch during the Cougars’ road game against Baylor.
BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua runs after making a catch during the Cougars’ road game against Baylor at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
BYU Photo

When Puka Nacua and his brother, Samson, announced they were transferring to BYU last spring, it gave the Cougars’ receiving corps a major boost.

How major? Puka Nacua has become one of BYU’s top receiving threats as a sophomore, while brother Samson has two touchdowns in 2021 and has been one of the team’s emotional leaders.

Puka Nacua’s top individual performance as a Cougar came last week in the team’s 38-24 loss at Baylor, as he caught five passes for 168 yards and his first touchdown at BYU.

It was the type of game that had people envisioning just how much of an impact Nacua could have during his Cougar career — the team next plays at Washington State on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, FS1) and how he stacks up against some of the best BYU talent of the past decade, and beyond.

Is he the best BYU wide receiver since Cody Hoffman, the Cougars’ all-time leading receiver who played his final season in 2013?

He may not break any career marks at BYU — not after playing his first two seasons at Washington, though only one counts against his eligibility because of the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season.

It’s become apparent, though, that Nacua will be a big factor in the Cougars’ passing game during his time in Provo and could find his way into the record books by the time he’s done at BYU.

“He’s just a physical presence out there in all areas,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said earlier this week of Nacua during his “Coordinators’ Corner” show. “He can block any player on the field. You throw him the ball down the field, he’s so physical and can box out and use his body to make the catch. He’s a complete player.”

He’s off to a hot start with BYU

Ever since missing the Cougars’ season opener against Arizona, Nacua has been a big contributor in BYU’s passing game. In the six games since, Nacua has 20 receptions for 444 yards and a touchdown, and he’s had at least three receptions and more than 60 receiving yards in each game over the past month.

There’s only been one other wide receiver in BYU history who’s had better numbers in their first six games played in a Cougars uniform, and that was Todd Watkins, a transfer from Grossmont Junior College. In 2004, he came in and had 37 receptions for 655 yards and three touchdowns in his first six games as a Cougar.

In the past 10 years, another transfer, Jordan Leslie from UTEP, had a similar impact to Nacua over his first six games. Leslie had 27 receptions for 383 yards and one touchdown during that stretch in 2014.

From a more historical perspective, Phil Odle had 25 receptions for 341 yards and eight touchdowns in his first six games as a Cougars receiver in 1965.

Nacua’s receiving yards through his first six games played are better than BYU’s all-time leading receivers, Hoffman and Austin Collie. Hoffman had 20 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown through six games as a freshman in 2010, while Collie had 34 receptions for 363 yards and three touchdowns in 2004.

The Cougars’ remaining regular-season schedule is favorable, too, for Nacua and the BYU passing attack to put up strong numbers. BYU’s final four FBS opponents all rank in the bottom half of FBS programs in passing yards allowed, and two are in the bottom third — that includes Georgia Southern, worst in the country, giving up 348.3 yards per game, and Washington State, which allows 236.6 yards.

He’s a highly-rated receiving recruit

Nacua is one of the best wide receiver prospects to come through the Provo school, from a recruiting rankings perspective.

When he signed with Washington in 2019, Nacua — who was named the Deseret News’ 2018 Mr. Football out of Orem High — was rated the 22nd-best receiver in that class and No. 136 nationally among all positions, according to 247 Sports. That makes him the second highest ranked WR prospect to play for BYU behind only Ross Apo (in 2009, Apo signed with BYU as the No. 133 overall player in that class and No. 17 at WR) over the past two-plus decades when recruiting rankings started on the 247 Sports site, in 1999.

There’s only one other four-star wide receiver recruit associated with BYU, and that’s Corner Canyon High’s Cody Hagen, who’s committed to the Cougars’ 2022 recruiting class.

To put this in perspective against other impactful BYU wide receivers in recent years, Gunner Romney was a three-star recruit in the 2018 class, while Dax Milne was a two-star walk-on that year. Mitch Mathews was a three-star recruit in 2009, as was Watkins in 2004, a junior college transfer

BYU’s top two leading receivers of all time weren’t four-star recruits, either — Austin Collie was a three-star recruit ranked No. 74 among wide receivers in the 2004 recruiting class, while Hoffman was a two-star recruit in 2009 and rated among the lowest BYU signees that year.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) grabs a pass over Utah State Aggies cornerback Cam Lampkin (6) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) grabs a pass over Utah State Aggies cornerback Cam Lampkin (6) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

His per-catch average is elite

Through 17 college games — 11 at Washington, six at BYU — he’s averaged 21.1 yards per catch, and that includes averaging 22.2 yards per catch on 20 receptions so far as a Cougar.

Of players with 50 or more career receptions, there have only been two other Cougars in the program’s history with a per-catch average above 20. Lloyd Jones, who played at BYU in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had a 22.4-yard per catch career average, while Tyler Anderson, a speedster from the late 1980s to early 1990s, averaged 20.4 yards per catch.

So far this season, Nacua has six receptions of 35 yards or more, including three — of 52, 45 and 47 yards — coming against Baylor last week.

What Nacua needs to work on

Simply put, at this point, Nacua has shown a lot of promise but his BYU career is still young. He’ll need to maintain the type of numbers he’s shown so far to be considered among the program’s best, and there just needs to be some time to accurately analyze his impact, as you would with any player.

Also, while Nacua’s receiving yards are impressive, his total receptions (20) and touchdowns (one) are not on pace yet to match up with some of BYU’s best players at the position. Both of those could improve with time.

Ranking the top 5 BYU wide receivers of the past decade

Since the 2012 season

  1. Cody Hoffman: BYU’s all-time leading receiver in the three major categories — receptions (260), receiving yards (3,612) and touchdowns (33) — is a no-brainer at the top of this list.
  2. Mitch Mathews: Mathews was a consistent threat from his sophomore to senior seasons and is one of 14 Cougars with 2,000 career receiving yards (2,079).
  3. Gunner Romney: Romney is closing in on 2,000 career receiving yards — he’s currently at 1,758 — and could make a run at 3,000 if he stays for his senior season.
  4. Dax Milne: Milne’s junior season at BYU ranked No. 5 all-time at the school in terms of single-season receiving yards, with 1,188 yards to go with eight touchdowns.
  5. Jordan Leslie: The grad transfer from UTEP played just one season for the Cougars, but he was a strong complement to Mathews in 2014, with 55 receptions for 779 yards and six touchdowns.

Also under consideration: Neil Pau’u, Micah Simon, Ross Apo, Aleva Hifo, JD Falslev, Colby Pearson, Devon Blackmon, Jonah Trinnaman, Nick Kurtz

How Nacua stacks up against the top 5: If Nacua continues to play at the level he has already shown and stays at BYU through his senior season, he’ll overtake all but perhaps Hoffman on this list.