When BYU wide receiver Dax Milne declared for the NFL draft in December, it left a sizable production hole to fill in the Cougars’ passing attack.
Milne had, after all, been the favorite target of likely first-round draft pick Zach Wilson, as the receiver had 70 catches for 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns during BYU’s 2020 campaign.
Earlier this week, though, reinforcements came in for the BYU receiving group, when brothers Puka Nacua and Samson Nacua announced they would be transferring close to their Utah County home. The Cougars add a pair of Pac-12 wideouts who are expected to provide invaluable depth and production, whether this season or in the near future.
What do each of the brothers bring to BYU?
Breaking down Puka Nacua
What he showed at Washington: In two seasons with the Huskies, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Puka Nacua played in just 11 games. An injury shelved him after eight games in 2019, and he played in three of Washington’s four games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
As a result, Nacua had 16 receptions for 319 yards and three touchdowns in his Huskies career. After averaging 21 yards receiving per game as a freshman — when he started three games, including one against BYU — Nacua was Washington’s second-leading pass catcher (and tops among wide receivers) last year, catching nine passes for 151 yards and a touchdown while averaging 50.3 receiving yards per game.
Best game: While he had a better game in terms of receiving yards as a freshman (three catches for 97 yards against Arizona), Nacua stepped up on numerous late-down and critical situations during Washington’s come-from-behind win over Utah last year.
Nacua had a career-high six catches for 67 yards against the Utes. His two biggest catches came during the Huskies’ game-winning drive: Nacua first caught a 14-yard pass on third-and-10 to extend the series, then grabbed a 15-yard reception on the next play to get Washington into Utah territory at the 44-yard line. Six plays later, the Huskies scored the game-winning touchdown with 36 seconds to play.
Of Nacua’s six catches, five went for first downs. That included a 15-yard reception on a fourth-and-4 play that got the Huskies down to the Utah 22, though Washington failed to capitalize on the field position, missing a field goal.
It was Nacua’s most consistent performance of his young college career: he finished the day with four catches over 10 or more yards.
Assessment: At this point, it’s unclear when Nacua could be eligible to play for the Cougars — since he isn’t a graduate transfer, he would need to sit out a season under normal NCAA transfer rules. In April, though, the NCAA will be voting on a waiver that would allow one-time transfers for the 2021-22 season due to the pandemic — players would be eligible to transfer and play immediately without having to sit a year. If that passes, he’d be eligible in 2021. Otherwise, he’ll have to wait a year.
If Nacua can improve on his average of three receptions and 50.3 receiving yards per game last season — that would equate to 36 receptions for 600 yards during a normal regular season — the former four-star recruit could be the No. 1 receiving option for this team. At the very least, Nacua is set up to be a key member of the Cougars’ receiving corps for the next few seasons and line up outside along with another talented wideout, Gunner Romney, at some point.
Breaking down Samson Nacua
What he showed at Utah: The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Samson Nacua was a constant presence in the Utes’ receiving group since walking on to the team in fall 2016. Over four seasons, he played in 45 games, starting eight, and had 82 catches for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nacua was consistent — from 2017-19, he averaged just over 300 receiving yards per season, and just under 25 yards per game.
His most productive season came as a sophomore, when Nacua caught 31 passes for 362 yards and five touchdowns, all career highs. His five touchdown receptions led the team during the 2018 season.
Best game: Nacua put up his best individual-game numbers during the Utes’ 38-13 win over Washington State in 2019. That day, he had five catches for a career-high 90 yards and one touchdown.
Nacua’s big catch came on a 52-yard touchdown grab on the first play of the second quarter, after Washington State had tied the game at 7-7 on its previous possession. He also had receptions on two other touchdowns drives in the game, as well as another on a possession that ended with a field goal.
Nacua also had a handful of strong games during sophomore season. Against Arizona State in 2018, he had four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Three of his catches went for 17 or more yards, and his longest reception of the game — a 26-yarder — helped set up his 5-yard touchdown later on that same drive against the Sun Devils.
Assessment: Samson Nacua will be immediately eligible as a grad transfer, and his consistency and experience will be welcomed on a Cougars team that returns the least amount of production in the country in 2021, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
Nacua made a living as a solid inside receiver, and he should be a reliable rotational receiver for the Cougars. He’ll team with Neil Pau’u to form a solid inside receiving combo, especially if he can duplicate, or improve upon, the numbers he put up for Utah from the 2017 to 2019 seasons.
Who else BYU has at receiver
Before the Nacua brothers decided to transfer to BYU, the Cougars had a good pair of leading receivers coming back, along with other wideouts who’ve shown promise but who would need to step into bigger roles.
- Gunner Romney: The junior is BYU’s leading returning receiver, after catching 39 passes for 767 yards and two touchdowns last season. It was his breakout year, and if he stays healthy, another productive season producing long gains for the Cougars is expected.
- Neil Pau’u: Pau’u, another junior, should be a big help for whoever starts at quarterback. He was second on the team last year in receptions (45) and added 603 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Like Romney, he’s a reliable target.
- Young wide receivers Kody Epps, Keanu Hill, Chris Jackson, Brayden Cosper: BYU had multiple other wideouts who had receptions during the 2020 season, though none of them caught more than six passes or surpassed 100 yards on the year. Epps, a true freshman last year, could have the most promise among the group after being seen as a steal in the Cougars’ 2020 recruiting class. This group, though, is most likely impacted by the Nacuas joining BYU, as these players would have been first in line to become the third and fourth wide receivers in the rotation for the Cougars.
- Chase Roberts: Roberts gets his own category, after recently returning from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was an Under Armour All-American coming out of American Fork High, and if he acclimates fast enough, could be a factor in the upcoming season, though it’s more likely his first real impact comes in 2022.
Other pass-catching options on the roster
- Isaac Rex and Dallin Holker: BYU has a pair of pass-catching tight ends that will also complement the Cougars’ air attack this season. Rex had a solid freshman year — catching 37 passes for 429 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns in 2020 — and will be joined by Holker, another returned missionary who played extensively as a freshman in 2018.