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BYU doesn’t measure up to Power Five talent? Nacua brothers beg to differ

Former Washington receiver Puka Nacua and former Utah receiver Samson Nacua said they have been welcomed by their new BYU teammates with open arms, and dispute any notion that there is a talent drop-off in Provo

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Siblings Samson Nacua, left, and Puka Nacua talk about playing together during BYU football media day.

BYU wide receiver brothers Samson Nacua, left, and Puka Nacua talk about playing together during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rarely was there a time during BYU’s football media day last month when the Nacua brothers — Samson and Puka — got serious. 

Laughing, joking around and clowning each other, their new teammates and even head coach Kalani Sitake was the order of the day.

But the receivers transferring in from Power Five schools — Samson played at Utah for four years after walking on and the highly recruited Puka played in 2019 and 2020 at Washington — got serious for a few moments when it was suggested that they are taking a step down in competition at BYU.

“It is definitely ran differently. I mean, every program you go to is ran differently. Everyone does it their own way. But shoot, there is no drop-off here. You saw what they did last year. That doesn’t come as a fluke. You gotta be working hard in order to do that, so it has been beautiful.” — Former Utah receiver Samson Nacua on his transfer to BYU

No way, they said, after having worked out with BYU’s receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks the past four months or so.

“Anybody who thinks that, I would tell them to come to practice and see if it is a step down, see what we are really about down here at BYU. I don’t think it is a step down,” said Samson, who played in 45 career games at Utah, starting in eight.

“It is definitely ran differently,” he continued. “I mean, every program you go to is ran differently. Everyone does it their own way. But shoot, there is no drop-off here. You saw what they did last year. That doesn’t come as a fluke. You gotta be working hard in order to do that, so it has been beautiful.”

Added Puka, who played in UW’s first eight games in 2019 as a freshman before missing the remainder of the season with an injury, and in three games last year: “In terms of talent, facilities, everything, BYU isn’t behind anybody in anything.

“You saw BYU come out and beat USC, Tennessee (in 2019),” he said. “They have talent just like everybody else. It is just a matter of being consistent and keeping on top of our game every game we play. We will be fine.”

They will have to be considering the Cougars have seven Power Five teams on their schedule: Arizona (Sept. 4), Utah, Arizona State, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC.

“I think everyone is excited to play football and have a schedule that is really solidified that we are going to start with, right? Especially after last year,” Sitake said. “The guys are all excited. They came here to play good teams. I wanted to be here because the schedule was hard.”

And he also wanted to assemble a team that can handle those rigors. The Nacua brothers go a long way in helping him accomplish that goal.

“I feel like the experience of going through tough schedules give us the knowledge and the education on how to get better,” he said, remembering how the Cougars improved in the trenches after getting thrashed by Wisconsin in 2017. “We have to create our depth and make sure we get to that point, and that is through recruiting, development and getting our depth as high as we can as far as getting the numbers in the right places.

“I saw the same thing when I was at Utah when we went from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 and we had some growing pains along the way,” Sitake continued. “There is no other way to learn it than to go through the experience. Now we have players who want to play against difficult teams.”

Productive pedigrees

Whatever they do, the brothers will have a hard time matching the contribution to BYU made by their older brother, Kai Nacua. The safety, who is still trying to get a permanent roster spot in the NFL and signed a one-year contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers last February, had 14 career interceptions for BYU, the most since Derwin Gray.

Another Nacua brother, defensive tackle Isaiah Nacua, was briefly on BYU’s roster but never played in a game.

Samson Nacua, who has trimmed his hair considerably since playing for the Utes, a nod to BYU’s Honor Code requiring hair to be above the collar, was awarded a scholarship in 2018. He will enter BYU as an immediately eligible graduate-transfer, having become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

Samson caught 82 passes for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns for Utah and led the Utes in receiving touchdowns in 2018 (five) and 2019 (four).

Puka Nacua’s first career catch at Washington went for a 28-yard touchdown. The Deseret News’ Mr. Football, 2018 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year and USA Today’s All-Utah Offensive Player of the Year picked the Huskies after receiving offers from every major program in the country, along with BYU and Utah.

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Orem High football player Puka Nacua poses at Orem High on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Nacua was the Deseret News Mr. Football in 2018.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

He finished his UW career with 16 catches for 319 yards and three TDs, with a long of 65. Obviously, BYU is getting a couple of game-changers — provided they can get some playing time in an already-solid receiving corps that includes returning standouts Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney, much-improved junior college transfer Chris Jackson and up-and-coming prospects such as Keanu Hill, Kody Epps and Terence Fall. 

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have these guys in the program,” Sitake said during media day, a few minutes after interrupting an interview session with reporters to congratulate Samson Nacua on his haircut, a salute that included a big hug, and more clowning. “These guys have already made a difference, just with their presence and how they handle themselves.”

No doubt, the fact that the brothers are already crowing about the talent level they’ve found at BYU speaks volumes as well. They both said at media day it won’t be easy winning a starting job, due to the talent that is already there.

“Don’t forget that we have great tight ends here at BYU, too,” Puka said. “Isaac Rex and Masen Wake and Dallin Holker are coming back, and they are dogs. We are good there. … Then we got Neil and Gunner on the outside, and me and Samson. I mean, four big guys running down the middle, 6-foot-4 guys, will be hard to stop.”

With Pau’u and the Nacua brothers, BYU could have its first all-Polynesian starting receivers group in school history. Romney, when he’s healthy, won’t be easy to supplant, however.

Passing game coordinator and receivers coach Fesi Sitake knows he has some hard decisions to make.

“But it is a problem I like to have,” he said. “Having a lot of talented players, a lot of depth, it makes me really have to lock in and decide who is going to take the bulk of the reps. … We expect Samson and Puka to make an impact, to have a role, as long as they stay healthy and meet their end of the bargain. We definitely value that experience and expect them to have a big role.”

Gaining acceptance

Fesi Sitake said it takes a “mature group of guys” to welcome two stars to the receivers room and not have petty jealousies and insecurities rise up. So far, this group has avoided that, due to the culture that head coach Kalani Sitake has established.

“The culture here sets that standard,” Fesi Sitake said. “There are some places where it is really hard to integrate that acceptance. But starting at the top, what Kalani has done with being inclusive and accepting has worked. Our culture is built on love and learning.”

Fesi Sitake said returning receivers such as Romney and Pau’u have led that acceptance.

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Washington wide receiver Puka Nacua in action against Oregon State during a game, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Seattle. Puka, along with brother Samson, who previously played for Utah, transferred to BYU in the offseason.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

“These guys are, ‘OK, we got better, there is more competition, the cream is going to rise to the top and we have competition that joined us, these are good dudes. Let’s welcome them in, let’s have fun,’” Sitake said. “They all know they are competing against each other for time, but they do it in a healthy way.

“And so I think that’s how you integrate it. The culture is the driving force and I am actually really impressed with how seamless the transition has been because of that precedence.”

Puka Nacua said the acceptance has been “pretty good, for the most part,” but noted that he has missed some time while recovering from a “minor” injury.

“We all do the same things and we are bonding,” he said. “A lot of the guys, I have known for awhile and trained with them before. I am trying to learn everything. They have some tricks already being in the offense that I am trying to pick up on. We are always talking and trying to learn from each other. It has been super good. The competitive vibe that is out there has definitely been good for us.”

Samson Nacua said he enjoyed his time at Utah, but BYU is the place he needs to be right now.

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Utah Utes wide receiver Samson Nacua greets fans after the Utes defeat Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Samson, along with his brother Puka, who previously played for UW, transferred to BYU in the offseason.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

“There is great energy from all the coaches here,” he said. “They just bring a lot of family vibes, honestly and that is what I have been looking for. Not that I didn’t have it up at the U., but I dunno, there is just something different down here and it is beautiful to be a part of.”

As far as their place on the depth chart, the brothers said that is far from decided. They weren’t on BYU’s post-spring depth chart, but that’s not a surprise, because they didn’t participate in spring practices.

“We definitely want to be starters, but if not, wherever they put us is good,” Samson said. “We are here to help the team and make this team better. So we are happy to do whatever coach Kalani, whatever (Aaron Roderick) asks of us. We are here to make plays for this team.”

Family above all

As has been well-documented by the Deseret News since rumors began circulating that the brothers were interested in transferring to BYU — they grew up within walking distance of campus — the brothers made the move to be closer to family. 

Their 75-year-old grandmother’s health is in decline, and their mother, Penina, has been dealing with various, health-related issues that called for her sons to be near. Penina lost her husband, and the brothers lost their father, in 2012.

“There is great energy from all the coaches here. They just bring a lot of family vibes, honestly and that is what I have been looking for. Not that I didn’t have it up at the U., but I dunno, there is just something different down here and it is beautiful to be a part of.” — Samson Nacua

“Football was never the reason the decision was made,” Samson said. “I wanted to be home with my mom and grandma, spend as much time as possible with them, because when all is said and done, they are going to be there for me. They are what matters most.”

Puka said it was tough to be in Seattle and be away from his mother, grandmother and brothers for so long when he knew they needed him back home.

“It took a toll emotionally and mentally and I just felt distant from them,” Puka said. “I really missed being around them physically, hugging them and all that.”

BYU recruited Puka Nacua hard when he was at Orem High, and he said those connections he made a few years ago have made the transition easier.

“We grew up on Ninth East right by the Creamery, not too far,” Puka said. “I grew up pretty much in BYU’s backyard, so I was always at all the games, especially when Harvey (Unga) came on. Me and Samson have known Harvey most of our lives. We have played basketball together for a long time and he can still hoop. He has still got it.”