LOS ANGELES — Puka Nacua‘s 10th catch on Sunday set the record for most catches in a rookie’s first two games. His 11th put him over 100 yards receiving for the second game in a row. But his 12th showed just who the fifth-rounder out of BYU is on the football field.
On fourth-and-2 and trailing the San Francisco 49ers by 10 with 10:18 remaining, the Los Angeles Rams were driving down the field. Quarterback Matthew Stafford found Nacua in the middle of the field for a 9-yard completion where he was met by two defenders after his first step, but he trudged forward for at least 1 more yard. The drive would end in a field goal and the Rams came up short in their comeback attempt, but it was just one of many plays where Nacua hasn’t relented a single yard.
Nacua has an NFL-high 111 yards after the catch this season, the most by a Rams player in the team’s first two games since wide receiver Cooper Kupp had 146 in 2021, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He and Kupp are the only Rams wide receivers with 100 in their team’s first two games in the last 15 seasons.
That fourth-down catch was one BYU wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake saw many times during Nacua’s two seasons playing for the Cougars.
“He would catch anywhere from a five- to a 10-yard route and just turn right upfield and on contact would get hit, but then just finds a way to drag a defender or two, another two or three yards,” Sitake said. “And you add those up on six, seven catches, those are 20 hidden yards that you get from just sheer grit and toughness and all that stuff.
“That’s the epitome of Puka.”
That Nacua has the opportunity to lead the league in targets is because the Rams have been without Kupp, their star receiver and Super Bowl LVI MVP. Kupp will miss at least two more games after he was placed on injured reserve before the start of the season because of a lingering hamstring issue.
Nacua leads the league with 35 targets — 10 more than Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson and 11 more than the Miami Dolphins‘ Tyreek Hill, who rank second and third, respectively. Nacua’s 15 receptions in the Rams’ Week 2 loss are the most in a game by a rookie in NFL history. They’re tied for the second-most in a game in Rams history, trailing only Tom Fears’ 18 in 1950.
All this from an unheralded fifth-rounder who Rams coach Sean McVay called “a real pleasant surprise” during training camp. Those who have known Nacua for longer than McVay, though, saw this success coming.
“I thought that he would be a great pro, and I thought that everybody that passed on him would regret it,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “And looks like I’m right.”
WHEN HE SEES Nacua make a contested catch, Roderick flashes back to a November evening in Boise, Idaho. Trailing by four at the end of the game, in front of a sold-out Boise State crowd, Roderick called three straight plays to get Nacua the ball.
“And then it was fourth-and-goal from the five,” Roderick said. “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.”
Sitake remembers the conversation over the headset.
“We all just kind of unanimously agreed,” 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.’ We go up and it was a play that literally only he could have made.”
Multiple scouts and personnel executives told ESPN before the draft that it was Nacua’s ability in contested ball situations that stood out on film.
Roderick called Nacua “the best I’ve ever seen” at those contested catches, saying he has “a unique ability to be playing at a really high speed and find the ball in flight, and then adjust his body with relationship to where the defender is and come down with it.”
“We’d just throw go routes in games to him, and he didn’t even have to be open,” Roderick said. ” … He’ll just run and lull the defender to sleep, and then, we call it late hands, where he’ll put his hands up at the last second where the defender doesn’t have a chance to react to it.”
That physicality from Nacua has been noticed at the NFL level. McVay said the rookie “plays with really aggressive hands.”
“You can just see through the catch point and then on contact,” McVay said. “He’s heavy at contact. He’s got great contact balance. I think he made a lot of good plays without the ball in his hands as well as with the ball in his hands. He embodies that toughness.”
Roderick told the Rams scout he spoke to about Nacua that the receiver “practices so hard, we had to dial him back.”
“Like, whoa, chill out, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Roderick said. “He doesn’t know any other speed than full speed. I’m sure they’ve had to teach him there that they don’t kill each other in practice in the NFL.”
HIS OLDER BROTHER Kai Nacua said that toughness developed at home, where Puka grew up the second-youngest of six kids.
“When you’re the younger brother, you kind of get beat up a lot,” Kai said. “So that came with years of being at the bottom of the pile.”
And you can see it translate to his game.
“He wants to show how physical he is,” Kai said. “You think of defensive players, they’re the ones that always want to hit, but I think Puka always wanted to establish, ‘I’m not the one that’s going to receive a hit, I’m going to deliver a blow as well.’ … He always made sure to show that he was a physical receiver.”
Nacua’s physical style of play has already taken its toll on his body. After the Rams’ first game of the season, he was on the injury report with an oblique injury. And while Nacua said he felt he was able to recover during the week and “just let it all fly” on Sunday, this isn’t his first experience having to deal with recovery.
Injury history played a larger part in him dropping to the fifth round of the draft in April.
Nacua broke his foot during his freshman season at Washington, where he played for two years before transferring to BYU. Nacua also dealt with nagging injuries there, including an ankle injury during the 2022 season.
Multiple scouts and personnel executives told ESPN before the draft that they had Nacua in the fifth to sixth round range and a few teams felt he was a priority free agent because of injuries.
Leading up to the draft, Sitake said Nacua was open about the idea he may not be a high pick, in part because he had seen his brothers Kai and Samson go through the process.
“I thought he handled it the right way by saying, ‘I really don’t know where I’m going to go and quite frankly, don’t care,'” Sitake said. “‘I believe in myself and whoever takes me is going to be really glad that they did.’
“And so I was happy to see him go into the draft with that type of mindset because I’ve seen many others who haven’t done that, and it’s been a let down, it’s been a disappointment and affected them mentally. … I think a lot of his success right now is he’s playing very free, because I think he took a lot of unnecessary pressure off of himself starting from that draft process and what his expectations were.”
IN THE FIRST two series alone Sunday, Roderick couldn’t believe how many ways the Rams utilized Nacua — and he took note of it.
“They had him chip block a defensive end in pass protection, and then release on a route,” Roderick said. “They had him crack block a defensive end on a pin and pull-run play. They threw him a screen, they threw him a hitch, they handed him a jet sweep, and I’m pretty sure there was another pass attempt to him that was a down-the-field pass attempt.
“What that told me was they already trust this guy to do a lot of things, and he must be doing them all pretty well in practice … because you don’t ask all of your wide receivers to be able to do all of those things. Especially younger players, they usually specialized like, ‘Hey, let’s feature him doing what he does best,’ but Puka makes everything look easy, and he’s really, really smart. And so you can use him in a lot of different ways.”
It was the same thing that made Nacua so good at BYU, where he caught 48 passes for 625 yards and five touchdowns in nine games in 2022.
“He could run any route we wanted. He could make any block we wanted. He was our best ball carrier. He’s just a very versatile player. But you’ve got to be smart to do all that stuff. And he’s clearly earned their trust [because] you don’t see very many players do that many different things in the first two series of the game, even the most veteran players,” Roderick said.
During OTAs, Kupp said Nacua has “a great feel for the game” and “asks the right questions” in the meeting room and on the field.
“You come in, you’re running new concepts and things like that,” Kupp said. “Things that you’ve done before to get open might not fit within the realm of the things that we want to do here, but he’s just transitioned so quickly over understanding what the parameters are that he’s able to work in.”
Former BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, a Minnesota Vikings fifth-round pick in April, said when he heard “how quickly he was learning with Cooper Kupp and in the film room with Matthew [Stafford] and Cooper [Kupp], listening to them, I just knew he’d find a spot and he’d be trusted really quickly.”
When Rams offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur watches rookies, he can look at their eyes when they’re in the huddle, “and you can tell the guys that are swimming, the guys that aren’t and he definitely has a calm demeanor about himself.”
“His understanding of the game comes really natural to him,” Stafford said.
Some of that came from learning from Kai, who played at BYU before appearing in 25 NFL games between 2017 and 2021. When Kai had time to talk to his family on Mondays and Tuesday during the season, he said he “was able to just kind of give them whatever I was getting throughout that week,” teaching his younger brothers how to prepare for their dream of an NFL career.
“It definitely was an advantage for him to get that from an older brother,” Kai said, “someone who was living it day by day and just hearing it constantly of like, ‘this is how you need to perform.'”
“They’ve helped accelerate my learning,” Nacua said. “It’s been so fun to get to ask questions. I hope they never get annoyed with me.”
Two weeks in though, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting annoyed with a record-breaking rookie.
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Kevin Seifert and Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.