Puka Nacua, the wide receiver out of Orem High and BYU, is the steal of the draft and the talk of the National Football League, or at least he was until Taylor Swift dropped in. He is the subject of talk-show gab and the press and the TV booth. But you probably knew this if you have even just a casual interest in football.

“He can do anything. … He’s a great runner. He  tracks the deep ball well, he’s a great blocker, he can play the slot or outside. And he loves football. He brings so much energy and enthusiasm. He’s a fun guy to be around.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on Rams rookie Puka Nacua

“(Nacua) has been a SHINING STAR early in this NFL season,” tweeted NFL analyst Pat McAfee.

Colin Cowherd, the host of a popular national sports talk radio show, began one of his shows last week by saying, “It is unbelievable that in league history no receiver has come out of college and had more targets and catches than Puka Nacua of the Rams. Now, we had heard in camp that (he) was good. He’s Cooper Kupp! And by the way he was not a first-round pick, not a second-round pick …”

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick says, “My sister and brother-in-law live in L.A. and say it’s Puka mania there. “It’s funny. They’re not even football fans.”

The 22-year-old rookie has taken the league by storm at least partly because almost no one saw this coming. Not like this. BYU has hardly been a hotbed for pro-caliber wide receivers (more on this later) and then there were Nacua’s injuries and the concerns about his speed, which seems silly now. He wasn’t drafted until the fifth round — the 20th wide receiver selected and 177th overall — and many observers thought he might not be drafted at all.

With Rams superstar Cooper Kupp sidelined by injury, Nacua has stepped into his role. He had 10 catches for 119 yards in his rookie debut against the Seahawks, and a week later he caught an NFL rookie-record 15 passes for 147 yards against the San Francisco 49ers, the best defense in the league.

In Monday night’s nationally televised game in which the Rams’ offensive line was helpless against the Bengals’ pass rush, Nacua had five catches for 72 yards. With two minutes left in the game, quarterback Matt Stafford found Nacua for a 37-yard completion at the 3-yard line, but the pass was badly underthrown, costing the rookie his first touchdown. It set up the team’s only touchdown of the night.

The TV cameras and announcers spent a good part of the evening focused on Nacua, which is what everyone has been doing since the season started. After three games, Nacua has 30 catches and 338 receiving yards, which rank second and fourth, respectively, in the league. He has been targeted 42 times — 14 per game.

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“ … He’s tough,” said coach Sean McVay during a press conference after the second game. “He’s a physical competitor. … He continued to battle all the way through the end. I mean, he’s the epitome of what we want to be as Rams. I love Puka Nacua, and I was really pleased with him today.”

“As far as getting open, he’s winning his matchup,” Stafford told reporters. “If he gets a man matchup, he’s winning. Doing a great job of separating and catching the ball, making plays after he catches it.”

BYU coaches were convinced Nacua was an underrated pro prospect. They addressed the concerns about Nacua’s speed (an unexceptional 4.57) in conversations with NFL scouts. “He has better speed than people realize,” says Roderick. “I tried to tell scouts no one catches him from behind. He had some of the most explosive plays I’ve ever seen.”

He also told them about Nacua’s high football IQ and his broad range of skills. Says Roderick, “What sets him apart is his versatility. He does so many things well. It makes him hard to defend.”

The Rams have figured that out quickly. As Roderick tells it, “I watched the Rams’ first two series (in the second game) — it’s all I had time to watch. They had (Nacua) chip block a defensive end and release on a route, they had him crack block a D-end on a pin-and-pull run play — usually you have a big, tough tight end do that — and the linemen pulled around him, they had him run a hitch, they threw him a screen, they threw him a deep ball, they had him do a jet sweep. That was on the first two series!

“That was what it was like to coach him. He can do anything. … He’s a great runner. He  tracks the deep ball well, he’s a great blocker, he can play the slot or outside. And he loves football. He brings so much energy and enthusiasm. He’s a fun guy to be around.”

Roderick, who coached 12 years at Utah and six years at BYU, calls Nacua, “The best runner after the catch I’ve ever coached. Last year against Arkansas, we threw him a hitch. We just wanted five yards. He turned it into a 19-yard gain against an SEC defense.”

BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua scores on BYU’s first play from scrimmage in BYU’s 2022 season opener against USF.
BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua scores on BYU’s first play from scrimmage in the Cougars’ season opener against USF, Saturday, Sept. 3 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. | Robert W. Grover, for the Deseret News

Before the 2022 season opener against South Florida, BYU’s offensive coaches were trying to choose their first play of the season. “Everybody said, ‘Let’s get the ball to Puka,’” recalls Roderick. “I said the surest way to get it to him is to hand it to him.” The Cougars chose to run a jet sweep to Nacua, which resulted in a 75-yard touchdown. “He was clocked at 21 miles per hour,” notes Roderick.

Then there was the 2022 game at Boise State when BYU coaches made no pretense that they were trying to get the ball to Nacua. He had 14 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 win that went to the wire. Trailing by four points late in the fourth quarter, Roderick called three straight plays for Nacua.

“And then it was fourth-and-goal from the five,” Roderick told ESPN. “Everyone in the stadium knew we were throwing the ball to Puka. And we threw it to him anyway. We’re not going to try to trick ourselves here. And all we did was just throw him a fade, and he made an unbelievable contested catch. It was pass interference; they didn’t call it, but it didn’t matter. He came down with it with both feet in bounds, and we won.”

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“We all just kind of unanimously agreed,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “If we’re going to put the game on the line, we’re giving it to our best player. We had other games in the past where we didn’t do that, and we learned our lesson and we just said, ‘You know what? If we’re going to lose this game, we’re going to lose it going to Puka.’ And we go up … it was a play that only he could have made.”

Roderick says he told NFL scouts that Puka “is going to be faster than you think, and he’s so versatile and so smart that he’ll have no trouble learning the offense. He’ll be ready to play in Game 1. We (BYU coaches) all told them that. There was only one thing I couldn’t vouch for — he had some injury trouble and missed games every year. That was my one caveat — if he can stay healthy, he’s a really good player.” 

The buzz coming out of the Rams’ training camp confirmed all of the above. There were reports about the rookie’s ability to make tough catches, to run for yards after the catch and to learn the offense quickly. Very early on he was getting a lot of reps in practice. “We were hearing good things,” says Roderick, who says he was told by a Rams scout, “Everything you guys said about him is true.”

There might be another reason NFL teams were reluctant to use a high draft pick on Nacua — BYU’s history with wide receivers. It stands to reason that a football program that has produced many NFL-caliber quarterbacks and fielded a prolific passing game since the mid-1970s would also have pro-caliber receivers — after all, somebody is catching those passes — but that has not been the case.

NFL teams have drafted 14 BYU quarterbacks, but only 12 BYU wide receivers, and there are many more receivers on a roster than quarterbacks. There’s one quarterback on the field and anywhere from two to five receivers. Among those 12 wide receivers who were drafted, only five were in the first six rounds, and three never made an NFL roster.

Seven BYU quarterbacks became full-time starters in the league and three others started a combined total of 27 games. There are just two former BYU wide receivers who became full-time starters in the NFL, and this is over a period of 45 years.

Meanwhile, 12 BYU tight ends have been drafted. Six BYU tight ends became full-time starters in the NFL — Dennis Pitta, Doug Jolley, Itula Mili, Todd Christensen and undrafted free agents Chad Lewis and Daniel Coats. All of them caught well over 100 passes except Coats (30). (Note: Christensen was a fullback at BYU but converted to tight end in the NFL and caught 461 passes.) Tight ends Gordon Hudson and Gabe Reid also started a handful of games and caught 20 passes between them. Clay Brown and Matt Bushman have also seen game action in the NFL, bringing the total to 10 who have actually seen game time.

Eleven BYU wide receivers have seen game action and 10 of them caught passes in the NFL, but only three of them had more than 15 receptions. By far, the most successful BYU wide receivers were Golden Richards, who caught 122 passes in the late 1970s during a six-year pro career, and Austin Collie, who caught 179 passes in five seasons before his promising career was cut short in 2013 by concussions. Let’s put it this way: After just three games, Nacua is one catch away from becoming the third-most prolific former BYU wide receiver in the NFL.

Ask Roderick, a former standout wide receiver at BYU, about the dearth of BYU wide receivers in the NFL, he says, “Those days are going to be over soon. Recruiting is different now. For so many years BYU receivers were overachievers. Now we’re getting draftable receivers who have the length and speed that the NFL is looking for. Dax Milne and Puka  have been drafted (in the last three drafts), and we’re going to get more in the next few years. We have several now with NFL potential.”

BYU wide receivers in the NFL

  • Player — Years — Receptions — Games played
  • Phil Odle (’68-70) — 8 — 31
  • Golden Richards (’73-79) — 122 — 86
  • Brad Anderson (’84-85) — 4 — 3
  • Glen Kozlowski (’87-92) — 31 — 66
  • Mark Bellini (’87-88) — 10 — 25
  • Kaipo McGuire (’97-98) — 0 — 4
  • Todd Watkins (’08-09) — 8 — 21
  • Austin Collie (’09-13) — 179 — 49
  • Jordan Leslie (’17-17) — 1 — 2
  • Dax Milne* (’21-) — 15 — 28
  • Puka Nacua* (’23-) — 30 — 3

Nacua looked like a can’t-miss recruit at Orem High, which is just five miles from the BYU campus. He set Utah state prep records for catches (260), yards (5,226), touchdown receptions (58) and averaged a whopping 19.9 yards per catch. He was named the state’s Player of the Year.

He originally committed to USC, but backed out of it and signed instead with the University of Washington. He played in 11 games for the Huskies in two years, starting six of them. His performance was underwhelming — 16 catches, 319 yards, three touchdowns. The highlight was a 65-yard touchdown catch against Arizona. He missed five games with a broken ankle during his sophomore season. After the season, he transferred to BYU at the same time his brother Samson was transferring to BYU from Utah.

Washington wide receiver Puka Nacua in action against Oregon State, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Seattle. After two years with the Huskies Nacua transferred to BYU. The rest is history. | Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

Washington beat reporter Dan Raley reported at the time that Nacua was the team’s third receiver to enter the transfer portal after the 2020 season. “Nacua’s exit is probably the most disconcerting since the 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior was considered a strong possibility to become a No. 1 receiver and was so highly decorated as a recruit,” wrote Raley, who believed the exits might have been due to the emphasis on the running game at Washington. Nacua said he missed being near family.

The Cougars were the beneficiaries of the Nacua football-playing brothers. Kai was a safety at BYU from 2013 to 2016 and played three seasons in the NFL for the Browns, 49ers and Jets as an undrafted free agent. Isaiah Nacua, a defensive lineman, signed with BYU in 2014, but never played. Samson played wide receiver for Utah for four seasons and BYU for one season, totaling 103 catches, 1,344 yards and 14 touchdowns. He signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent, but didn’t make the active roster.

“But one day at a time, one play at a time, just trying to be where my feet are at and make sure that I’m executing in the moments where I’m asked to execute.” — Rams receiver Puka Nacua

Puka Nacua didn’t produce superstar stats at BYU, not by today’s standards. In retrospect, the Cougars, for whatever reason, didn’t succeed in getting the ball in his hands the way they did, for instance, Collie, who had 215 receptions in three seasons. At BYU, Nacua played in 21 games and had 91 catches for 11 touchdowns and a healthy 15.7 yards per catch. Injuries forced him to miss games each season, including four games as a senior.

Despite the injuries and the unremarkable 40 time and so-so production (about four catches per game), Roderick had seen enough. “I thought that he would be a great pro, and I thought that everybody that passed on him would regret it,” he told ESPN. “And it looks like I’m right.”

The timing of Nacua’s arrival couldn’t have been better. Kupp, the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, has not played this season, and Nacua has done a good imitation of his teammate. Kupp, who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, is scheduled to return in Week 5.

“I think he’ll be happy to have Puka out there,” says Roderick. “(The Rams) have asked Cooper to do a lot of things, and it’s hard on him. Now the Rams have another physical, tough receiver. Kupp has someone to share the load, and defenses won’t be able to key on him as much anymore.”

What does Nacua think about his fast start? “I don’t know if I could wrap my head all the way around it,” he said per the Rams website. “But one day at a time, one play at a time, just trying to be where my feet are at and make sure that I’m executing in the moments where I’m asked to execute.”

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua takes the field prior to game against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press