Puka Nacua’s football career began with voluntary backyard beat-downs.
Washington’s highly decorated wide receiver signee was 5 years old, living in Las Vegas with his parents and older brothers. The Nacuas were insatiably competitive; at night, they would set up a spotlight in front of the house and play basketball for hours on end.
On sticky, sizzling summer days, they would strap on football pads and run Oklahoma drills, wherein two brave battering rams line up across from each other and collide until one inevitably crumbles. These were car crashes, head-on collisions repeated (and repeated, and repeated) in the “yard” — which was more mud than grass — behind the Nacuas’ house.
(The Oklahoma drill, coincidentally, was banned by the NFL on Wednesday for being more violent than beneficial.)
But “we would go at it,” Puka told The Seattle Times last week. “That’s what we did.”
And Puka did it despite a significant age and weight disparity. When Puka was 5, Samson Nacua was 8, Isaiah Nacua was 10 and Kai Nacua was 11.
If his brothers were Hummers, Puka was the itty-bitty bug obliterated on the windshield.
“Shoot, I was probably 5, 6 years old,” Puka Nacua said. “They were all way older than me, so it was pretty much a setup. I was a tackling dummy.”
But here’s the twist: Puka Nacua never stayed down.
And, nowadays, he’s not so easy to tackle.
“You have to shake your head and say, ‘This kid is completely different,’” said Jeremy Hill, head coach at Orem High School in Utah, where the Nacuas moved in 2013. “I’ve coached against (current UW wide receiver) Ty Jones. I’ve coached against (former USC linebacker) Porter Gustin. I’ve coached against some really good kids. He’s a completely different animal.”
Nacua’s statistics say the same. A 6-foot-2, 205-pound wide receiver, Puka broke Utah state records for career receptions (260), receiving yards (5,226) and receiving touchdowns (58) during a prolific four-year prep career at Orem, near Provo, Utah. As a senior, the 2018 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year claimed three more state records — for single-season catches (103), receiving yards (2,336) and touchdowns (26). He was named offensive MVP of the 2019 Polynesian Bowl.
If only his father had been there to see it. Lionel Nacua died suddenly on May 14, 2012, after a lifelong battle with diabetes. Puka’s mother, Penina, proceeded to raise four sons by herself.
And more than seven years later, Lionel’s passion persists.
“I know he’s watching over me,” Puka Nacua said. “It keeps me going, knowing that there’s another reason why I play, besides just the thrill that football brings. It’s just hard to explain the feelings that you get sometimes. Football players will tell you, you step between the lines and it’s that little juice you get inside you before a game starts. Even during plays, it’s something different.
“My dad put it into all of us. Looking at all of my siblings, everybody has a little piece of him. It’s been difficult, because growing up all the dads are the football coaches. Luckily he was able to coach me when I first started.”
A few things have changed since then. Puka’s oldest brother, Kai, is a third-year safety for the Carolina Panthers. Isaiah played defensive line with Kai at BYU, and Samson is a redshirt junior receiver at Utah.
But Puka may soon be the best of all of them.
And all these years later, he’s looking to dole out a few beat-downs of his own.
“My brothers started the competitive drive in me at a very young age and it’s grown ever since,” said Puka, who will play against both BYU and Utah at UW this season. “It was always, ‘I’ll show you.’ Everything I did growing up was (met with), ‘Yeah, I remember your siblings doing that,’ or, ‘Your older brother did that too.’
“I always knew there was a level I had to play at, because everybody knew my siblings. It definitely helped me and has always driven me to get better. It drives them too, because if they take a day off, they know I’m coming.”
• • •
Puka Nacua doesn’t take days off.
No, really. That’s not an obnoxious bit of editorial embellishment.
“He gets almost bored or anxious in the offseason when there’s not a practice, not games,” Hill said. “He’s the type, if we ever had a spring practice and lightning came out, state rule mandates we’ve got to shut practice down.
“He would get upset. Immediately it was, ‘Let’s see if the field house is open. Let’s finish practice there.’ He really does love the game.”
In this case, though, the word “love” may actually be lacking.
“People up there — current players, coaches — are going to be very shocked by how hard this guy works,” said Ross Apo, a former BYU wide receiver who has tutored both Nacua and Ty Jones. “If the game was a woman, he would be married to her. He would be catering to her. He’s obsessed.”
But for Puka, at least, an obsession isn’t everything. He has also been blessed with an innate set of skills. Nacua starred for Orem’s basketball team as well, earning second-team all-state honors following his junior season. Last weekend, he broke a 46-year Utah state record in the long jump, registering a 23-foot, 10-inch leap.
And, unsurprisingly, Puka’s hops also translate into touchdowns.
“I’ve never seen anyone — and keep in mind I coached against Ty Jones for two years — but I’ve never seen a kid with that ability to high-point a football,” Hill said. “Not only does he have the nearly 40-inch vertical, not only can he kind of hang (in the air), but he’s got just a sixth sense that I’ve never seen to be able to go up and high-point a ball over a defender. He’s been doing that since I first met him in seventh grade.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Nacua was ranked as a four-star recruit, the No. 8 wide receiver and the No. 48 overall prospect in the 2019 class by 247Sports; it should come as no surprise that the majority of the Pac-12 came calling.
It may have surprised some, though, that Puka chose Washington — which was breaking in a brand-new wide receivers coach — over the schools where his brothers starred (BYU and Utah) as well as the program where he originally committed (USC).
But not if you sat in on his meetings with Junior Adams.
“I think we actually clicked pretty early on,” Puka said of his new receivers coach at UW. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m a receiver. I eat, breathe and sleep receiver.’ That just spoke to me.”
Adams spoke to Puka.
And he wasn’t the only one.
“(Adams) talked about coaching (current Los Angeles Rams receiver) Cooper Kupp (at Eastern Washington) and his relationship with him,” Puka said. “After I met Coach Adams the first time, (Kupp) sent me a text and was like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to know anything about Coach Adams, hit me up.’ He sent me his number and he sent me a little paragraph about Coach Adams and how he felt about him.
“He’s like, ‘Coach Adams helped me a ton in college and has continued to help me as I’ve moved on in my career. As a receivers coach, I don’t know if there’s anybody better.’ Those were huge words. If he says that about Coach Adams, I’ve got to get some of that, right?”
Nacua got a little bit more of it on his official visit to Washington, too.
“We got to sit down and break down film, just talking,” said Puka, the most highly ranked 2019 UW signee via 247Sports. “By the end of our film session, we were both standing up. We were working releases right by the screen. We were on the board, talking (plays). It was just good knowledge going on. I can’t wait to get more.”
Nacua will get all he can handle when he arrives on campus next month. But what will that actually mean? All seven Husky wide receivers that caught a pass last season will return in 2019. That includes seniors Chico McClatcher (9 catches, 134 yards, 0 TD in 2018) and Andre Baccellia (55, 584, 0) and juniors Aaron Fuller (58, 874, 4) and Ty Jones (31, 491, 6).
But while UW doesn’t lack depth, it’s desperate for dynamic play makers. And Puka will undoubtedly volunteer to fill that void this fall.
“I really can’t tell right now until I get up there, but I plan on playing,” he said. “I don’t plan on redshirting. My plan is to get in there and play as soon as I can, whether that’s Week 1 or whenever it is. If it comes later in the season, I know I want to help make an impact on the team this year.”
It would be especially sweet if he could make an impact on Sept. 21, when Washington hits the road to take on his brothers’ alma mater in BYU. Or what about Nov. 2? That’s when the Huskies host Utah and its 6-3 junior receiver, Samson Nacua.
For years, Puka got beat down under the blazing sun in the backyard in Las Vegas.
Now, he’s leaving the tackling dummy duties to someone else.
“(Puka) told me by the time it was Game 4 or 5, when they play BYU, that he’ll be starting by then,” Hill said. “I realistically think if he’s not starting he’ll be a contributor right away.”
Added Apo: “A healthy Puka is playing as a true freshman anywhere.”
On Aug. 31, “anywhere” will be Husky Stadium in Seattle. Puka Nacua will be playing for his mother and father — and to prove, once and for all, which brother is really best.
“I’m just excited,” Puka said. “Every time I think about going to play college football and getting a chance to play at a university like Washington with the success they’ve been having lately, I just get excited.
“I’m heading up in about a month. It’s almost literally one month away, which brings tears when I think about it, because this is what I’ve been working for all my life. I’ve got to continue to work. I’m ready to prove myself up at UW.”