Puka Nacua doesn’t just have a name that lends itself to catchy monikers — Nacua Matata, anyone? — the Los Angeles Rams rookie wide receiver is making a name for himself just two games into his NFL career.
On Sunday, the former BYU and Orem High standout set an NFL record when he caught 15 passes for 147 yards in the Rams’ 30-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
It was the most receptions in a single game by a rookie in NFL history.
Nacua, who started his college career at Washington before transferring to BYU, also broke other NFL marks Sunday — his 25 receptions this season set the NFL record for catches by a rookie through his first two career games.
He is also the first player in league history to have 10 or more catches and 100 or more receiving yards in each of his first two NFL games.
Through two weeks, Nacua leads the NFL in receptions and is second in receiving yards — his 266 yards trails only Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, who has 309.
That kind of early production has had NFL media chatting about the Utah native in recent days.
On Monday, Pat McAfee hyped up Nacua during his ESPN show.
“Puka Nacua is always open. … It feels like this guy is legitimately always open,” McAfee said.
Los Angeles’ star wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, is currently on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
That’s forced the Rams, and quarterback Matthew Stafford, to find new targets with their star ailing — and Nacua and fellow receiver Tutu Atwell have stepped up in Kupp’s absence.
“I mean, (Stafford) trusts him a lot,” McAfee said of Nacua. “This dude has been a shining star early in this NFL season.”
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 18, 2023
He also leads the league in targets with 35, including 20 on Sunday.
“For the second game in a row, Nacua has taken on a heavy load of the target share, turning 20 targets into 15 catches for 147 yards,” ESPN’s NFL Nation staff wrote. “The Rams’ performance wasn’t enough to beat the 49ers on Sunday, but it certainly provides more hope with Kupp out for at least the first four games.”
Nacua is appreciative of the attention but would have preferred, at least on Sunday, that it came in a win.
“My success will come when the team wins,” Nacua told reporters postgame, putting an emphasis on victories over individual records. “So I’m excited for us to be able to come back and capitalize when we’re able to win. It was sweet last week, I got things to improve on, but the most important thing is getting that dub.”
Nacua broke the rookie single-game receptions mark on the Rams’ final offensive play, making a 17-yard grab on a third-and-2 in the game’s last 20 seconds.
That catch allowed him to pass four others — Najee Harris (2021), Saquon Barkley (2018), Roy Helu (2011) and Don Looney (1940) — who caught 14 passes in a single game during their rookie seasons, as the Deseret News previously reported.
“Puka Nacua continues to look like a rising star who’s going to play a key role in this offense all season,” wrote CBS Sports’ John Breech.
The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue also pointed out, “Don’t forget, he’s a fifth-round pick.”
Nacua, who dealt with injuries that plagued his 2022 season at BYU, didn’t have as much hype surrounding him coming into the season as other rookies.
What Rodrigue saw in the Rams’ latest game caused her to declare that Nacua and Atwell “are for real” for a Los Angeles team that is hopeful that Kupp can return in Week 5, according to the head coach Sean McVay.
“Quarterback Matthew Stafford also let it slip that Nacua is ‘early in the progression’ for him on zone concepts; 21 of Nacua’s targets (15 catches) in two games have been against zone coverages for 162 yards and 8.71 air yards per target, according to TruMedia,” Rodrigue wrote.
“Nacua has occupied almost 40% of the target share through two weeks, but third-year receiver Tutu Atwell has averaged 98 yards per game and 15.1 yards per catch. Atwell has 196 yards off of 13 catches through two games. When Nacua is targeted, the Rams’ pass game has a 15.9 passing EPA, and an 11.5 passing EPA when Atwell is targeted. This ranks No. 4 and No. 11 in the NFL, respectively.”
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times raised the question, Is Nacua another Kupp?
The panel of columnists agreed that, from what they have seen thus far, Nacua has staying power in the NFL.
“The comparisons between the gritty Puka Nacua and the out-of-nowhere Cooper Kupp are inevitable and valid. Nacua is taking full advantage of his opportunity on a team that really has no clear-cut No. 1 or 2 receiver,” Sam Farmer wrote. “He was targeted 20 times on Sunday, something that has only happened to Kupp once in his career. In his rookie season, Kupp was never targeted more than 11 times in a game.”
The columnist added that it’s always good to be cautious when making these kinds of comparisons with such a small sample size.
“As well as Nacua has played, the jury is still out on whether he’s as precise a route runner or has the mastery of concepts and the overall offense that compares to Kupp, even in Kupp’s early years,” Farmer wrote.