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What Puka Nacua said about breaking 2 NFL rookie records on regular season’s final day

Los Angeles Rams receiver Puka Nacua catches a pass against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. Nacua set a rookie record for receptions on this play.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There was a bit of math homework going on at times during the Los Angeles Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon.

Reporters at Levi’s Stadium were calculating Puka Nacua’s receiving yards and reception totals throughout the first two-plus quarters of the game.

“There was a peace and calmness throughout the game that I was able to feel that was different from other ones and I know they were out there with me, so it was sweet.” — Puka Nacua on feeling his late father and grandma were with him

That’s because the fifth-round draft pick was chasing history Sunday, trying to break both the NFL’s rookie receptions and rookie receiving yards records on the final day of the regular season.

As it turned out, the worrying was all for naught — he achieved both.

But more on that later.

When Nacua, the former BYU standout, was asked whether what he accomplished this season was starting to sink in, he answered affirmatively — and that realization came through his strong family ties.

“Yeah, today actually for the first time,” he said. “I was looking at just some pictures of my family. My dad started coaching my little brothers on the Green Bay Packers team in Las Vegas. So that’s also kind of part of the reason I was a Packers fan. But just looking at family pictures, and just wishing that my dad could be here to watch this moment and this game, because knowing that my family’s gonna be out here.”

His father died from diabetes complications when he was young, and his grandma passed away in 2021 from ovarian cancer. Nacua said he felt their presence Sunday.

“Him and my grandma, I know were up there. I hope they get to watch every game but they were out there enjoying this one with me because there was a peace and calmness throughout the game that I was able to feel that was different from other ones and I know they were out there with me, so it was sweet,” Nacua said.

When Nacua caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in tight coverage with 1:53 left in the first quarter, he really got the reporters scrambling. Did that break the receiving yards record?

That catch — Nacua’s sixth touchdown of the season — actually tied the NFL rookie receiving yards record of 1,473 yards, set by the Houston Oilers’ Bill Groman in 1960.

Nacua thought it might have broken the record, too.

“It was right in the sun and I was like, just don’t be the one drop. It’s just like the one thing when you’re playing football outside, you know what side is going to be (in) the sun and that was it. And I was like, ‘Oh, just don’t.’” Nacua said.

“Luckily it fell right out of the sun at the last second and I was able to track (it) and I was like, ‘Oh man.’ I did think it was the record. But then nobody was celebrating. I was so lost at that moment. Then I was on the floor, I slipped a little bit. To catch the touchdown was sweet, too, to put a nice little cherry on top.”

It took some time, another quarter-plus of action, but Nacua broke that record Sunday, snagging a 7-yard reception from Carson Wentz in the third quarter to set a new high mark for receiving yards in a rookie NFL season.

Then, on the next play, he broke the NFL rookie receptions record with a 6-yard catch, passing the 104 receptions by the Miami Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle in 2021.

Nacua entered the day needing four catches and 29 yards to break both records.

He ended the day with four catches for 41 yards and the score, putting Nacua at 105 receptions and 1,486 receiving yards on the year, to go with his six touchdowns.

“Really happy for Puka Nacua,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “Gah, that was frustrating to figure that out. After the first drive, thought we’d be able to do that and I thought our guys just did a great job. But for him to be able to break both of those records is such a credit to this team but also his consistency and his body of work over a 17-game season. I’m really happy for him.”

The Fox broadcast caught video of Nacua embracing his mother, Penina, after setting the records.

“That was super sweet. I saw my mom at the beginning of the game and we were able to have a moment so it was cool for her to be here just in this environment,” Nacua said.

“I think the last time we were here my older brother Kai was on the team, for the 49ers not the Rams. But so it was kind of just a moment that hit me earlier in the game. That was a full-circle moment of just experiencing it all. And I’m glad my family was able to be here to experience it with me.”

When asked if there’s somewhere special the game ball he gave his mother will go, Nacua said his mom has a place.

“There’s definitely a room downstairs that’s got a bunch of old peewee trophies and some of my brothers’ gear and stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t know where they’ll go in the ranking — my brother Kai’s got some gear that will be sweet and always rank up there because he was the first one, but hopefully I’ll make the wall somewhere.”

Nacua, who starred at both Orem High and BYU (with two years at Washington in between), was summarily taken out of the lineup after that final catch — McVay could be seen on the TV broadcast saying, “Nice! Now get him out of here!” after Nacua broke the second record.

That’s because the Week 18 matchup held little significance for the playoff-bound 49ers or Rams, who started Sam Darnold and Wentz, respectively, at quarterback in front of a half-filled Levi’s Stadium.

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San Francisco had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. While Los Angeles was destined for either the No. 6 or No. 7 NFC seed, Sunday’s result wouldn’t make much difference — the Rams are starting their playoff journey on the road.

For the record, the Rams won the game, 21-20 — scoring a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter and adding a two-point conversion to give them the edge.

There is still work to be done: Nacua is a vital part of an explosive Rams offense that hopes to do some damage in the postseason.

That doesn’t dampen the significance behind what Nacua accomplished Sunday, capping a rookie season that goes down officially as the best statistical rookie receiving season in NFL history, in terms of receiving yards and receptions.

Nacua, unsurprisingly, was named a Pro Bowler earlier in the week, along with another former Cougar, 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, who manned his usual position on the same field Sunday where Nacua set the record.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, left, laughs with San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner after the game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. | Loren Elliott, Associated Press
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, left, laughs with San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner after the game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. | Loren Elliott, Associated Press

At times, it was obvious how focused the Rams were at trying to get Nacua the record.

He was targeted three times on Los Angeles’ opening drive, and a team-high six times even though he only played a few minutes into the third quarter.

McVay admitted it was frustrating trying to get the records to happen organically, within the team’s system.

“I thought it was the football gods telling me man, this is not how you do it,” McVay said. “I’ve believed in the integrity of the game and it was one of those deals that you want to give him an opportunity to get that because of what he put himself in a position for but when you start getting outside of the framework of operating how you normally would, it’s almost like they’re looking and saying, ‘Hey, you know what, you know better.’”

Nacua, for his part, recognized the significance of the moment, sharing these records with his teammates — that it is a reflection on what the team has been able to accomplish.

“They should all feel that award just as much as I am because without the guys in the front, without obviously we have Matthew (Stafford) with them, with Carson out there and everybody involved it was sweet and just a feeling of enjoyment from everybody made it more sweet,” Nacua said.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) jogs up the sideline next to Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford prior to the team’s game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. | Brandon Judd, Deseret News
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) jogs up the sideline next to Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford prior to the team’s game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. | Brandon Judd, Deseret News

Sunday’s effort was hardly the first time Nacua has been in the spotlight this year.

He began the season with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games — a surprise considering how late he was taken in the 2023 NFL draft.

Much of what has happened since that late April day when Nacua, who was often-injured during his final year at BYU, has shown that he has defied the odds during the first season of his NFL career.

In Week 2, Nacua set the NFL rookie single-game record for receptions, catching 15 passes for 147 yards against the 49ers. (Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that he set the single-season marks against the same team?)

His 25 receptions through two weeks also set the league record for catches by a rookie through his first two career games.

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He became the first rookie in Rams franchise history with 1,000 receiving yards his first NFL season.

Nacua ended the year with seven 100-yard games receiving. He’s tied for second all-time among rookies with Harlon Hill (1954), Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) and Justin Jefferson (2020), according to ESPN.

Only Groman, who had nine in 1960, did better.

For Wentz, who was subbing in for Rams starter Stafford, it was his first time playing with Nacua, and he made sure, in helping pursue that mark, to not “do anything dumb.”

“We just kind of thought you know it should come naturally. It was pretty sweet to get that first touchdown and he needed one more yard at that point. It was fun,” Wentz said.

“I’ve never gotten the chance to play with him, too. To see him in person, the plays he made, obviously missed a couple — him and I, definitely on me — but it was fun to see that. ... I knew it was a big responsibility for me to help him get that record. Pretty impressive kid, impressive record.”

There will be more time to put some perspective on the season, particularly once the postseason is done.

For now, the Rams will be focused on the Detroit Lions, their wild-card playoff opponent.

As for Nacua, he’s still getting used to the spotlight that comes with being one of the stars on a prolific NFL team, which got brighter the more records he set.

“It’s definitely weird like, just like being able to refresh some of the social media sites and just see number 17 or something about Rams football and just kind of seeing myself definitely is not normal,” Nacua said. “It hasn’t registered as being normal sometimes, but I try not to indulge in too much of that.”