Polishing his craft: How Puka Nacua is honing technique during the offseason
Developing ‘smart speed’ is one of the things explosive BYU receiver is working on heading into spring camp
BYU receiver Puka Nacua is about to see what a difference a year can make.
Last February, the thought of running a 20-yard post to catch a pass was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, his goals were much simpler — just make it from the couch to the kitchen table.
Like an Indy car sitting in the garage with its wheels off, Nacua could only watch, wait and rest.
The surgery to repair a broken bone in his left toe required six weeks of nonweight-bearing recovery time — and it was a horror movie he had seen before.
Nacua’s freshman year at the University of Washington was cut short with the same injury and required surgery. He broke it again during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season but played through the pain. A second surgery was required.
“It was tough. I wasn’t moving around at all,” Nacua said. “I had to let my body run its course and get adjusted to the screw in my foot.”
A month later, as the Cougars were already in spring practice preparing for the 2021 season, Nacua and his brother Samson announced their plans to transfer to BYU. They joined the program prior to fall camp in August.
After a 10-3 season, and a year removed from surgery, Nacua is healthy and eager to get going again.
“This will be the first spring practice I have ever participated in,” said the junior-to-be. He was still at Orem High for the Huskies’ 2019 spring drills and the pandemic canceled UW’s spring practice in 2020. BYU’s spring drills for the 2022 season begin Feb. 28.
“I’m excited to get the rhythm reps that I didn’t get with Jaren (Hall) and the guys last year.”
Rhythm reps are key for success throwing deep. Several times last season, Cougar receivers, including Nacua, outran the quarterback’s arm.
“Deep passes are going to be huge for us in the fall,” Nacua said. “That’s why rhythm reps are so important to work on right now.”
‘If we are even, I’m leavin’
That’s all Nacua needs to know whether he has beaten his opponent.
“As a receiver, there’s a saying ‘If we are even, I’m leaving,” Nacua said. “If I am even with the defender, I’m the one that knows where the ball is going. I’m running the route. I’m dictating where the defensive back is going.”
Nacua’s theory played out to perfection at Baylor against the Big 12’s top-rated pass defense. Though the Cougars fell to the Bears in Waco, he had six receptions for 168 yards, including catches of 52, 45, and 47 and his first BYU touchdown.
“I trust Jaren. I put my head down, take off, look up and I know where the ball is going to be,” he said. “I think of that when I’m on the field. If I can get a defender to stop his feet — and we get even, then I’m leaving.”
Nacua’s precamp diet and daily receiver drills have been underway for weeks. He works under the tutelage of former BYU receiver Ross Apo and against his brother Kai, former Cougar and current New York Jets defensive back.
“I’m a morning guy, but not a morning workout guy. I like workouts later in the day,” Nacua said. “I’m catching the football and working on my footwork every day. My knees and hamstrings are getting back to full strength.”
Odell Beckham Jr. will spend Sunday at the Super Bowl trying to catch passes for the Rams against the Bengals. He is 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds. Nacua, who is 6-2 and 210, will be watching him closely.
“I’m not over 6-4, so I’m not like the A.J. Browns of the NFL. I’m more of the size of Beckham or Tyreek Hill,” Nacua said. “They are smaller receivers who are explosive with their speed.”
Beckham provides a blueprint for how a receiver, who is already fast, can get even faster. He does it by controlling his speed. Call it smart speed. It’s not just full steam ahead on every play. He uses deception and timing and Nacua is on to him.
“I want to be able to know when to burst in certain areas of my routes or in parts of the field,” Nacua said. “It’s about understanding when I need to be at full acceleration to create separation. Getting faster and controlling my speed is why I’m excited for spring ball to polish my craft.”
You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Nacua took his chance and cashed it in, quickly becoming a 2021 crowd favorite — averaging 18.7 yards on 43 receptions and six touchdowns.
His first catch as a Cougar was a seven-yard toss from Hall in the first quarter against Utah and led to a Jake Oldroyd field goal.
His second reception was a nine-yard grab late in the first half to set up a touchdown to his older brother Samson.
Nacua caught two more passes in the third quarter, with the second one leading to a Gunner Romney touchdown as the Cougars amassed a 23-7 lead and won the game.
His skill of catching in traffic, gaining yards after the catch, and knack for always falling forward made him a viable target for Hall at any given moment.
Slowed by a hamstring injury during fall camp, Nacua started just one game through the first six, but once he solidified his niche in the offense, he started the remaining seven.
So long, Samson
“After the play, unsportsmanlike conduct, offense, No. 45, and No. 12!” declared referee Chris Coyte, after both Puka (No. 12) and Samson (No. 45) were flagged for a celebration penalty following Samson’s touchdown catch against Utah.
It is the first and may very well be the only time two brothers were both penalized on the same play for the same infraction in program history after both removed their helmets during the on-field celebration.
That’s life with the Nacuas — they are a mixture of spectacularisms synchronized with occasional 15-yard setbacks. On the football field, their bite proved as bad as their bark.
Together, they brought the life to the party as they teamed up at BYU for the first time as actual teammates. The two brothers played at different high schools and committed to different Pac-12 programs, but in 2021 they believed their late father was calling them home to Provo for one last hurrah together.
“It was like a movie,” Puka said. “I already miss the times when I had to wake him up for meetings and workouts. Spending time like that with my big brother was a dream come true.”
Through his leadership and fearlessness, Samson blended the Mandalorian creed “This is the way” with Fred MacMurray’s 1966 classic “Follow Me Boys” as he led a victory march through five Pac-12 opponents, including his former school (Utah).
With his eligibility complete, Samson is passing the torch to Puka.
“He always put a smile on my face and now I’ve got to make someone else smile,” Puka said. “Jaren is our leader, but I’m slowly coming into a leadership role. If I can get our guys in the receiver room doing the right things, then I’m doing my part.”
Las Vegas reunion
Puka stood on the sidelines from start to finish during BYU’s 2021 season opener against Arizona at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. He wasn’t medically cleared to play so all he could do was watch.
When the Cougars return to Las Vegas on Oct. 8 to take on Notre Dame, he plans to make up for lost time in the city of his childhood and where his dad’s body rests in a nearby cemetery.
It will be a family reunion for the ages.
“There are some of those games that are circled for me, and this is one of them. I have a cousin (Marist Liufau) who plays linebacker for Notre Dame, and we are definitely going to come face to face on the field,” Nacua said. “Plus, going back to our hometown will be an opportunity to play in front of family and friends that are still there, and I know Pops will be watching over the stadium.”
Driven by Dad
“I remember waking up as a young kid to the sounds of the garage door opening and closing every morning as he went to work,” Nacua said of his late-father Lionel. “Then I would drive home with him after our practices, and he’d be back up doing the same thing the next day.”
“The example that my father placed before us before he passed away is what drives me. He always took care of me, my family and my mom (Penina). I always want to do that. I hope I can use the platform of playing football to help take care of my mom.” — Puka Nacua
Lionel died from complications related to his diabetes on May 14, 2012, when Puka was a young boy.
“The example that my father placed before us before he passed away is what drives me,” Nacua said. “He always took care of me, my family and my mom (Penina). I always want to do that. I hope I can use the platform of playing football to help take care of my mom.”
Orem High was a gold mine of achievement for Nacua. In addition to a pair of 4A state football championships, his career marks of 5,226 receiving yards and 58 touchdowns remain state records.
“Coming out of high school I trusted my abilities, but when I got to UW I noticed a huge speed difference,” Nacua said. “Going there helped me understand that while I may no longer be the fastest guy, I have to learn how to use my size and speed the right ways to create a difference.”
The High School All-American, Gatorade Player of the Year and Deseret News Mr. Football award winner also remains the state 4A record-holder in the long jump. Nacua’s leap of 23 feet, 10.25 inches in the 2019 state meet at BYU broke the previous record that had stood for 46 years.
“I was an athlete without the best techniques. But I knew that if I ran fast, I could jump far,” Nacua said. “So, I ran fast, hit the board and jumped. That was the one time I hit the board and it turned out to be the best jump of the day” — and the longest since 1973.
“I feel the need, the need for speed!”
Long after Maverick and Goose delivered their popular punchline in the blockbuster movie “Top Gun,” Makea Nacua was born.
His mom describes him as “a little fat Budda with no neck and a bald head” and he was tagged with the nickname “Puka.” But once he lost his baby fat, Nacua moved into the fast lane, and he has been there ever since.
Now, to become BYU’s top gun, he feels the need for more speed, and smarter speed, and he isn’t alone. Teammates Gunner Romney, Keanu Hill and Chase Roberts all showcase the ability to move down the field.
So, who wins a pre-spring practice 50-yard dash?
“I’d put money on me! Wait, I guess we can’t do that here,” Nacua says with a laugh. “But if I was a betting man, I’d bet on me.”
BYU is betting on Nacua being open down the field on Sept. 3 at South Florida.
With a healthy offseason to prepare, it’s a safe bet that he will be.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.