In Canton, Ohio, between the busts of the legendary figures of the sport – from Super Bowl winning quarterbacks to era-defining coaches – stands a blue and gold jersey with the No. 17 on the back.
The name on the back might be unfamiliar to many, but even after just a few games in the NFL, Puka Nacua has already earned his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nacua’s jersey has been placed in football’s shrine to all things great and good because of the historic beginning to his rookie NFL season.
Drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round of this year’s draft to relatively little fanfare, Nacua is exceeding expectations with a series of explosive performances.
Following Week 5 of the 2023 season – a game in which he caught seven passes for 71 yards and a touchdown – the 22-year-old’s jersey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the numerous records he had broken.
The headline was that he had recorded the most receptions (46) and receiving yards (572) by a rookie in their first five games.
At his current pace, Nacua will obliterate the receiving record set by a first-year player in the NFL, set by Jaylen Waddle just a few years ago, as the Rams wide receiver seemingly every week sets a new milestone for the most receptions by a player in their first year as a professional.
And for this unheralded player from Utah, it makes the achievement that much more special.
‘Holy cow, this guy’s special’
Football has always been around Nacua. He has three older brothers, all of whom played at Brigham Young University (BYU) at some point.
So when it came to transferring to his hometown university after a few disappointing years at the University of Washington – battling a broken foot and limited playing time from the bench – it was a no-brainer for Nacua.
Fesi Sitake, the wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator at BYU, vividly remembers the first time he encountered Nacua.
“I remember the first game I watched of him in high school. I saw him make one of the best catches he’s had in his high school career and he’s had a lot of them,” Sitake told CNN Sport.
“‘Holy cow, this guy’s special.’ And as we developed the relationship in recruiting, I could tell that what you saw on the surface is who he really was, which was just a super happy, delightful, appreciating life, loves football, great personality type of young man.”
Once Nacau had returned home to Utah, Sitake remembers his dedication to learning and improving at BYU, explaining how he was naturally extremely intelligent at his position and also physically gifted, while remaining a warm person too.
Sitake describes Nacua’s physical gifts as being like a “gazelle on one play and a Clydesdale the next play” – a Clydesdale is a powerful breed of horse originating in Scotland where it was predominately used for agricultural means.
Paired with quarterback Jaren Hall – also drafted in the fifth round of this year’s draft to the Minnesota Vikings – Nacua blossomed into a dynamic offensive weapon, his physical traits making him stand out while his catching ability developed.
In the 21 games he played at BYU, Nacua caught 91 passes for 1,430 yards and 11 touchdowns, including finishing seven games with more than 100 receiving yards. He led the Cougars in both statistics in his two years at the university, despite dealing with injuries at the end of his final year.
More than his ability to pile up statistics was Nacau’s uncanny skill at coming up with the big catches at the biggest moments.
Sitake highlights BYU’s clash with Boise State last year as a moment which encapsulates Nacua’s abilities as a player and a person.
BYU trailed with under a minute remaining, but Nacua was able to make a game-winning, acrobatic catch. Not only did it clinch the victory, it also helped end a four-game losing streak which Sitake described as being like a “little dark cloud that was over our program.”
“To feel the electricity on a sideline, to see the relief on our sideline, get the monkey off our backs, so to speak, to see Puka just elated. And it wasn’t for himself because he knew how much we wanted it, how much we were going through it as a team,” Sitake remembers.
“I just remember putting my arm around him and just having a great talk with him and saying: ‘That’s who you are, man. Like, when someone needs something, they go to you. And this is just going to be a small sample right here of how your life is going to be.’
“And then we end up finishing the season with four straight wins, and Puka was the catalyst to that … through the dark four-game stretch, he was just putting his head down.
“He was still smiling, he was still laughing, was still working hard. He never changed according to the environment around him and it ended up paying off.”
Managing the step up
The 177th overall pick in the NFL draft isn’t usually followed with much interest, given it comes midway through the third day of proceedings.
But when the Rams submitted their selection with the final pick of the fifth round, little did they know that they’d completely revamped their receiving corps with just one selection.
An already high-ceiling group, which included Cooper Kupp – the NFL’s receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns leader in 2021 – was searching for additional explosiveness.
Last season, Kupp had suffered a catastrophic knee injury and the drop off between him and the rest of the receiving group was stark as the Rams endured a tough Super Bowl title defense, going from 12-5 in 2021 to 5-12 in 2022.
In Nacua, they got a contributor from day one. He might have fallen down in teams’ draft predictions due to his injury history in college, but the Rams decided to take a risk and add him to the squad.
In fact, the official NFL scouting report on Nacua coming out of BYU predicted he would be taken in the sixth or seventh round of the draft, also saying that he is “lacking the twitch or speed to attack NFL man coverage at a successful rate.”
The scouting report also said he would “struggle to elude NFL press coverage” and “lacks instant acceleration to separate” from defensive players.
Sitake recalls texting Nacua after finding out his new home, with the two expressing their excitement at Nacua being able to be coached by Sean McVay and paired up with Kupp. Sitake had played alongside and coached Kupp during his time at Eastern Washington.
With Kupp out for the first four weeks of the season, Nacua flourished in the limelight, totaling 25 receptions and 266 receiving yards through the first two weeks of the season.
“It was a dream come true. It couldn’t be any better,” Nacau told reporters after the Rams’ Week 1 victory in Seattle against the Seahawks. “I had a ton of fun out there.”
In those two weeks alone, Nacua broke three NFL rookie records – his 25 receptions broke the previous record of receptions by a rookie through their first two games of 19 set by Earl Cooper in 1980; 25 receptions were also the highest ever for a rookie in any two-week span, surpassing Odell Beckham Jr.’s record of 23 in 2014.
Nacua also became the first rookie in history to record 10-plus catches and 100-plus receiving yards in each of his first two games.
Rams head coach McVay has seen his fair share of efficient offenses. He might only be 37, but McVay has been credited in part with bringing about an offensive revolution to the league after his appointment to his current role in 2017.
So when McVay effusively praises a player, it’s probably worth sitting up and listening.
“He’s a stud. The game makes sense to him, physically and mentally tough,” McVay said after the Rams’ Week 2 loss to the San Francisco 49ers when asked about Nacua. “Works really hard.
“I think even when you guys talked to him last week, he’s very inquisitive. He asked a lot of questions and he’s got great guys to be able to lean on, whether that’s (Rams receivers coach) Eric Yarber, but really, you know, you look at the veterans in that receiver room with Cooper (Kupp), I think Tutu’s (Atwell) done an excellent job.
“And Van (Jefferson), his rapport with Matthew (Stafford) where they’re able to bounce things off of one another, I think that’s been a real positive and Puka is going to continue to improve and I love Puka.”
But Nacua had only just gotten started.
A further 72 yards came in Week 3 before a monster nine-catch, 163-yard performance against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4 where Nacua scored his first NFL touchdown – which just so happened to be the overtime game-winner for the Rams.
A clip of Nacua’s girlfriend, Hallie Aiono, celebrating the moment – sitting almost disbelievingly as tears roll down her face – was shared by the official NFL Instagram account and had over 266,000 likes, showing the growing interest in the Rams rookie.
Praise for Nacua reached its zenith that week when arguably the best basketball player of all time, LeBron James, shouted out his performances, calling him ‘Puka Dončić’ – a reference to the Dallas Mavericks superstar guard, who is prone to creating magic on the court – on a live stream on social media.
Week 5 marked the return of Kupp which saw the majority of targets go the way of the 30-year-old star. But that hasn’t stop Nacua from racking up monster statistics.
Over the next five weeks of the season, Nacua compiled 326 receiving yards off 25 catches and a touchdown.
As a rookie, he sits in the top five in the NFL in terms of receiving yards (827), as well as touting 64 catches to his name, breaking Kupp’s previous single-season franchise record of 62 set back in 2017. Nacua has 293 more receiving yards than the next rookie in the league, Jordan Addison.
Nacua has given the Rams’ receiving corps one of the most-feared duos around and his poise defies someone playing his first year in the NFL.
“There’s always naturally going to be an element of surprise, not in the way that you didn’t think he could be successful, but that he’s on the track at such an early age,” Sitake told CNN.
“And I think that’s just a credit to a lot of factors: the right fit, the organization, Puka himself, the work he’s put in, his supporting cast around him, his family and friends and the people that love him.
“It’s just created this perfect recipe to have the season he’s having right now. Whatever that results in terms of records broken or not, man, I’m just so happy for him, and I truly believe no one’s more deserving to be on the track that they’re on right now than Puka.”
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