Puka Nacua is well-known in Utah football circles.
The NFL world — and particularly the Los Angeles Rams — are getting to know him as well.
Nacua, who was a fifth-round pick in April’s NFL draft, had a good night in his first preseason action Saturday when the Rams fell to the Los Angeles Chargers 34-17 at SoFi Stadium.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound rookie caught three passes for 32 yards, including the Rams’ first score of the preseason on an 11-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) August 13, 2023
“You can see he’s physical, tough, no fear,” Rams coach Sean McVay told reporters after the game. “He’s a guy that has great, aggressive hands.”
On the touchdown play, the Rams faced a third-and-goal from the Chargers’ 11 two plays after a holding penalty wiped out a short TD run. Fellow rookie and quarterback Stetson Bennett dropped into the pocket, then fired a pass to Nacua at the goal line.
With a trio of defenders surrounding him, Nacua, the former BYU and Orem High standout, made the touchdown catch to cap an 16-play, 75-yard drive.
“The touchdown catch, contested play right in the red (zone) area, bang-bang. I thought the offensive line did a great job allowing Stetson to hit (Nacua) in place, maintain the integrity of the pocket. Those two did a good job connecting,” McVay said.
“He’s doing a great job. I’m a huge fan of him,” the coach added regarding Nacua.
Earlier in the possession, Nacua made another key catch on third down. With the Rams facing a third-and-6 at the Chargers 42, Nacua lined up out wide, made a strong move at the snap to create separation from his defender and caught a pass for a 17-yard gain.
— Ensign Gridiron (@EnsignGridiron) August 13, 2023
Nacua also lined up at punt returner early in the game — making a fair catch — and logged 30 snaps on offense while earning the start at wide receiver.
He’s made a strong impression with more than just his coach. Nacua, the 2018 Deseret News Mr. Football, has earned praise for his work in offseason workouts.
For fans, Saturday night was the chance to see what Nacua can do.
“Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick from Brigham Young, continued to show why McVay and receivers coach Eric Yarber have been complimenting him since offseason workouts,” the Los Angeles Times’ Gary Klein wrote after Saturday’s game. “... Nacua appears to be on track to play a significant role with star Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell.”
The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue has chronicled Nacua’s efforts with the Rams this offseason and has observed that the Utah County native could be in line to make an impact early in his pro career.
“Nacua had three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown, carrying forward a workload that has stood out from previous Rams rookie receivers of the last couple of seasons,” Rodrigue wrote following Saturday’s contest.
Earlier in training camp, Rodrigue noted that Nacua has been spending extra film time with Kupp, the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and that “is a tell for the expectations that may be placed upon the rookie in the coming weeks and months.”
Yarber has been impressed with the fundamentals and poise he’s seen from the rookie.
“I love what I’ve seen from Puka,” Yarber said earlier this month, per Rodrigue. “How physical he is, how fast he plays. The game is not too big for him. He’s not gonna look overly impressive in laundry. But when the pads come on, when the ‘clickety-clacks’ and the hitting starts, that’s when he’s most impressive. You can see it in how well he stays grounded catching the football, running through the (catch) and making it hard for guys to tackle him.”