Pac-12 teams travel well, so today at LaVell Edwards Stadium there will be thousands of fans in University of Washington purple and gold supporting the Huskies.
Some of those supporters will be welcoming home one of the greatest prep athletes in Utah history — former Orem wide receiver Puka Nacua.
Washington coach Chris Peterson — who was at Boise State previously — and his coaching staff haven’t been shy about recruiting the Beehive State. There are four former Utah standouts on the Huskies roster, including redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Taimani (East High School), redshirt freshman linebacker M.J. Tafisi (Alta High School), junior wide receiver Ty Jones (Provo High School) and Nacua, a true freshman who is making his mark on the program already.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Nacua put up ridiculous numbers during his prep career in Utah and owns no less than seven state receiving records. As a senior he caught 103 passes for 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns and for his career he snagged 250 catches for 5,033 yards and 58 scores. Recruited by nearly every major program in the country, Nacua originally committed to USC but when offensive coordinator Tee Martin returned to his alma mater, Tennessee, and the Trojans hired Graham Harrell, Nacua switched to Washington.
After playing a limited number of snaps in the first two games, Nacua caught his first pass as a Husky in last week’s 52-20 victory against Hawaii — a 28-yard touchdown reception.
Since Nacua is a freshman, he isn’t available for interviews so reporters covering Washington football regularly ask Peterson when his prize recruit would see more playing time. Early on, all Peterson would tell the media was that Nacua wouldn’t redshirt in 2019. After the Hawaii game, Peterson had more to say.
“When he was in, he did well,” Peterson said. “Even blocking-wise, he did a nice job. So much of that just has to do with learning what to do full speed. There certain things when we put him in that he feels comfortable with. There are certain guys we’ve challenged and said, ‘Hey, this is kind of on you, learning the system. The faster you learn the and the more you learn the more playing time you’ll get.’ We’re definitely trying to get him on the field more.”
Nacua has three older brothers that chose different routes.
Samson Nacua is a junior wide receiver at the University of Utah who has caught 61 passes for 658 yards and six touchdowns in his career. Isaiah Nacua was a defensive end who committed to BYU but never played. Kai Nacua was a ball-hawking safety for the Cougars who finished his career with 117 tackles, six interceptions and two touchdowns. He’s played for four NFL teams and his currently with the Indianapolis Colts.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake was certainly aware of what Puka Nacua was doing just up the street in Orem.
“If you have eyes, you watched what he did in high school football,” Sitake said. “He’s an amazing player and a great talent. I know him probably more personally because I’ve coached his brother here. Puka has a toughness that comes with that family and he’s just a great kid. I wish him the best, just not in this game. It’s been fun to watch him on film and stuff like that. I’ll cheer for them after this week but not this week.”
Orem High played at the Class 4A level last season and dominated, outscoring their opponents 753-262 on the way to a second straight state championship. Puka Nacua’s high school coach, Jeremy Hill, said his star wide receiver wasn’t worried about stepping up against college competition.
“There is no shortage of confidence there,” Hill said. “I got to see him in a lot of the summer camps and Nike events. His senior year he went up against some phenomenal defensive backs at Bishop Gorman (Nev.) and Santa Margarita (Calif.). He just elevates his game to go against the best. I got to coach him in a postseason All-American game and watched him go against 5-stars. He stood out. The better the competition, the better he’s going to play.”
Nacua caught 10 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns against Bishop Gorman. He set a Utah prep record with 321 receiving yards against Santa Margarita on 16 catches that resulted in three touchdowns.
Hill had four years to watch Puka Nacua grow and excel at him position.
“There are a lot of guys out there who ultimately may run faster or jumper higher than Puka,” Hill said. “But when you combine his physical attributes with the mental side, that’s what makes him special. He knows what a defensive back is going to do. He knows passing windows and he knows how to high-point the football. You put that all together and that’s what sets him apart. It also helps that he loves the game. He competes so hard in practice and in games. I’m seeing fewer of those types of kids that love the game.”
Hill has been in regular contact with Puka Nacua during his short time with the Washington program.
“He’s such a great kid,” he said. “He’s hoping to play more and get double the snaps he’s been getting. He’s fortunate to be living out his dream. He told me he knows it’s a marathon and not a sprint, so he has the right attitude. Last week, he was extra happy.”
Jones had a terrific career at Provo, finishing with 132 receptions for 2,740 yards and 39 touchdowns in his career. He caught 31 passes for 491 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore and was a mentor for Nacua when he arrived in Seattle. But Jones isn’t expected to play in 2019 due to a pair of injuries to his hand suffered in the spring and summer.
A few days before fall camp, Jones told The Seattle Times, “I’m limited in some things. At some angles, catching is kind of weird. I’m still trying to strengthen it. I’m just strengthening it day-by-day and it’s getting more comfortable.”