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Enjoy Puka Nacua while you can, he’s one for the ages

The BYU receiver’s contributions to the team have been a critical force since he transferred from Washington.

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BYU receiver Puka Nacua stiff-arms Boise State cornerback Tyreque Jones Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho.

BYU receiver Puka Nacua stiff-arms Boise State cornerback Tyreque Jones Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. Nacua was enormous in the Cougars’ victory over Boise State last Saturday night.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

The thing about Puka Nacua is how in the world do you replace him?

BYU football will likely see the last of Nacua at the end of the season, although he has another year of eligibility remaining. When you’re this good, you have to chase those dreams.

“When it came down to the end, there was no doubt who we were throwing it to. They knew it. We knew it. Everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going to No. 12.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on Puka Nacua

Nacua’s monster performance in BYU’s win at Boise State last Saturday underscored Puka’s mule factor.

You load him up like a beast of burden and point him to the trail.

Nacua’s game-winning touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal really should go down as one of the top-scoring receptions in school history, right up there with Clay Brown’s miracle catch in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

It had the difficulty factor. He had to haul it in with one hand while in the air and making adjustments. He had Boise State’s safety ripping off his jersey from his shoulder pad. He had to secure the ball to prove possession and have the focus to get his toe down in bounds before hitting the turf and rolling out of bounds in the end zone.

That’s a lot of ingredients in the mixing bowl and it all took place in the blink of an eye. 

Fade routes are tough to finish. It takes an accurate timing throw from the QB. It takes high-pointing the football. It takes concentration and it takes putting up with physicality from a defender who almost always is going to have his hands in your face, arms, hands, elbows and shoulders.  

Nacua had all that in that late play with the game on the line.

But there was more to it.

Nacua had been used extensively in the game with 14 catches and one carry, but he’d been running jet sweeps to draw the defense all game long. He blocked downfield for other guys, he took on a physical assignment when he wasn’t targeted because Boise State — just like other opponents — was always mindful of where No. 12 was.

Thing is, Nacua is made for this.

It’s in his DNA.

His energy level is off the charts. His enthusiasm is infectious. He just keeps competing and asking for more.

When he’s on the sidelines, he continues to be active. He’s chatting teammates up. He’s got his head in the game, looking for solutions, lifting both defenders and his offensive teammates.

This seems to be a Nacua family trait. We saw it in his older brother Kai, one of the best safeties the Cougars have ever had — who had three picks against Boise State back in his day — and Samson, a one-season player for the Cougars.

When Puka and Samson were on the team last season it was as if BYU gained an internal titanium battery pack, with cables and alligator clip plugs available to anyone who wanted a little juice. They exuded enthusiasm and passion. Their attitudes and love for playing became real fuel for the otherwise subdued and many times somber, conservative sideline.

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

Boise State’s star safety, JL Skinner, who was covering Nacua on that game-winning touchdown, did everything physically possible both in and outside the rule book to stop Nacua from catching that pass. He could only have done more if he’d had surgical tools that included scalpels and saws.

“He is a smart receiver,” said Skinner. “He read our defense and knew our coverages. He’d sit down in our zone.” 

“There is nobody I’d rather have in that situation (than Skinner),” said BSU coach Andy Avalos.

“He’s a playmaker,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake.

“That was one of the great performances I’ve ever seen by a college player,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on Monday’s “Coordinator’s Corner” program. 

“When it came down to the end, there was no doubt who we were throwing it to. They knew it. We knew it. Everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going to No. 12. 

“He’s amazing. What’s really impressive is if you notice how many different places he lines up on the field, which means he has to know a lot about our offense. I mean, not everybody can just play all these different positions that he plays. He plays in the slot, he plays in a wing alignment. He plays out wide field, he plays out wide boundary and lines up in the backfield.

“He’s a ball carrier, runs every route in our whole route tree. Option routes, deep balls, you name it, he’s doing it all. And that’s not easy to do,” he continued. “Just knowledge-wise, you have to be able to retain all that information and then take the practice reps. If you can see how hard he practices every day, and he’s just exhausted at the end of the practice. He goes as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

If you’ve seen the best receivers BYU’s ever fielded, Phil Odle, Jay Miller, Eric Drage, Matt and Mark Bellini, Cody Hoffman, Dax Milne and the great Austin Collie, you’ve seen playmakers with tremendous hands and focus, guys who ate up yards and scored TDs.

But Nacua really does stand out — statistics aside and missing three games this season — this guy may be a most unique and unusual breed. If he played safety, no doubt the defense would be that much better.

He’s a racehorse and a mule.

It will be tough for BYU to unload the pack from Nacua’s back and let him go someday,

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BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua runs with the ball against Boise State Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. BYU won 31-28.

Steve Conner, Associated Press