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Why Puka Nacua is focused on conditioning after his record-setting rookie season

The young Rams wide receiver said his team will ‘hit the ground running’ next year

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Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) before an NFL football game against the New York Giants on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) before an NFL football game against the New York Giants on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Bryan Woolston, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Puka Nacua has made it clear he isn’t satisfied with how his record-setting rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams ended.

He’s also determined to improve after bursting onto the NFL scene as a fifth-round draft pick who clearly punched well above his draft weight.

This week, Nacua has been in Las Vegas for Super Bowl festivities ahead of a game he wishes he and the Rams were playing in — instead, the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2024 Super Bowl on Sunday (4:30 p.m. MST, CBS) at Allegiant Stadium.

That doesn’t dampen the expectations Nacua has for himself and his teammates looking ahead to the 2024 season.

“I think we’ve got a lot of young guys who’ve got a lot of energy. We’re going to be able to hit the ground running as soon as the season starts and be able to roll all the way through Week 18,” he told reporters during a Next Gen Stats press conference at the Super Bowl Media Center on Wednesday.

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Kansas City Chiefs
vs. San Francisco 49ers
Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas)
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. MST
TV: CBS

The former BYU and Orem High wide receiver — with a stop at Washington in between — is coming off the most successful season by a rookie in NFL history.

A month ago, Nacua finished the regular season by setting the league’s rookie record for receptions (105) and receiving yards (1,648) in a win over the 49ers.

One week later, though, the fun came to an end when the Rams lost to the Detroit Lions in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Even then, Nacua starred in the losing effort, putting up a rookie playoff record 181 receiving yards in the loss at Detroit. 

He was the intended target on the Rams’ final offensive play of the season, but an apparent hold by the defender wasn’t called as he couldn’t reach high enough for a Matthew Stafford pass that sailed over his head on third and long.

Nacua took the blame squarely on his shoulders.

“Any time Matthew throws me the ball, my job is to go out there and catch it. The Rams organization trusted me to make that play and I wasn’t able to make that play,” Nacua said.

“So that’s something that I hold very dear to my heart now. Every time the ball gets thrown my way, the whole organization is trusting that I’m able to make the play and to do what I think I’m capable of. So I wasn’t able to in that moment, and I won’t let that happen again.”

“I think one (play) that kind of sent my confidence into another world was my first touchdown in Week 4, a game-winning touchdown in overtime.” — Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua

There are a couple things Nacua, who’s still getting used to the physicality of the pro game, is determined to work on this offseason.

“Conditioning. In most games I played close to almost 100% of all snaps, and it’s definitely a goal of mine to be out there for every single snap,” he said. “I feel like I’m capable of doing that in the run game and in the pass game.

“I also learned that I led the league in drops, so that’s something I would definitely try to work on.” 

Nacua’s first season, one that earned him a finalist spot for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, came with plenty of highlights.

One stands out to him as a moment when he knew he was going to have a big year.

“I think one that kind of sent my confidence into another world was my first touchdown in Week 4, a game-winning touchdown in overtime,” he said.

In that game, Los Angeles had allowed the Indianapolis Colts to rally from 15 down in the fourth quarter to force overtime.

In the extra session, though, Stafford hit Nacua for a 22-yard score, his first career touchdown.

“It was Coop(er Kupp) who actually came, he’s like, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting. You’ve been catching all these passes and your first touchdown hadn’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Of course your first touchdown was a game-winner in overtime,’” Nacua said.

It was the kind of season that earned Nacua another honor: being a Pro Bowler in his first season. He took part in the Pro Bowl Games last week in Orlando before heading back west to take part in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.

“It was beautiful. I loved it. It was nice and warm out there,” Nacua said of his Pro Bowl visit that included competing in, and winning, the Best Catch skills challenge — one that saw him make a reception while wakeboarding.

It was another way for the 22-year-old to make a positive impression in the NFL world where he’s earning praise from both old and young alike.

“The game had a little bit of rain, but then I guess that’s kind of what everybody says it happens in Florida. It’s gonna be sunny and then it’s gonna rain and then the sun will come back out,” he said of the experience.

“So I enjoyed it. It was a good time. The hotel that they had us in, the resort, it was a beautiful spot. They really took care of us.”

Still, Nacua would rather trade in the press conferences, award banquets and Pro Bowl sun tan for a shot at the Super Bowl title.

That will have to wait at least another season for Nacua and a Rams team that exceeded expectations this year behind a youth movement.

“I guess it’s still tough for us to think about that loss. I love playing football, so I’d much rather be playing football this week,” he said from the shadows of Allegiant Stadium.

“I’m sad. I’m sad we lost. It was fun and I learned a lot and it made me really excited. Although we did lose, it made me really excited for the offseason for the room for improvement I’ve got left.”

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Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) is tackled during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, in Detroit.

Paul Sancya, Associated Press