Inside Puka Nacua’s record-setting NFL start – and how Cooper Kupp, a college coach and his mom helped launch it

Rams rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua is making NFL history through his first four games. It may seem like his success came out of nowhere. But Nacua, his family, his teammate and his coaches laid the foundation. (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports

Rams rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua is making NFL history through his first four games. It may seem like his success came out of nowhere. But Nacua, his family, his teammate and his coaches laid the foundation. (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports

Cooper Kupp watched as Puka Nacua cycled through 1-on-1 drills. Then, the Los Angeles Rams receivers discussed.

What are the secrets to thwarting press coverage with a slant? What leverage is most likely to beat out a defender on a go ball in the red zone?

A hamstring injury had sidelined Kupp during this early-August training camp practice, so the NFL’s 2021 receiving triple crown winner turned his attention to helping the fifth-round rookie. He didn’t only impart offensive nuggets.

“I’m trying to worry about what I’m doing and he’s talking about knowing what I can get the DB to do,” Nacua told Yahoo Sports during a phone interview this week. “That was the first time I was like, ‘Holy cow, his ability to understand.’”

Four weeks into the NFL season, it’s Nacua’s turn to earn “holy cow” reactions.

The final selection of the 2023 NFL Draft’s fifth round leads the league with 39 receptions and ranks second with 501 receiving yards, behind only Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson. Nacua has reset the NFL rookie record for receiving yards and receptions through four games, and is also just the second player in NFL history with 100-plus receiving yards in three of his first four pro outings.

Give Nacua full credit for the execution of this production, and allocate partial preparation credit to Kupp for his pointers on tempo and body control. The two players don’t threaten with identical skill sets and certainly do not yet dissect defensive coordinators with the same level of savvy. But it’s not too soon to say each has earned his role as a staple in Sean McVay’s offense, thanks in part to similar strengths. Nor is it too soon to say that Kupp’s return from injured reserve – the Rams activated his 21-day practice window this week – will not render obsolete Nacua’s production even if his target share dips.

“What you’re seeing is two guys that can do a lot of different things with the ball and without the ball, and both stay grounded through the catch,” McVay told reporters Monday. “Both are very good after the catch. Both are tough in contested situations. I think the simplest evaluations that I’ve got of what are you looking for in receivers (is) guys that can get open and catch the ball.

“Both of those guys can do that.”

How the Rams landed Puka Nacua — and positioned him for immediate success

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford says he can’t pinpoint the moment Nacua earned his trust because the 15-year veteran doesn’t bestow or revoke trust on one play.

But it’s the one play on which Stafford didn’t lose trust in Nacua that resonates most with Nacua. Stafford first targeted him on an under route in the first quarter of the Rams’ season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. Nacua says Stafford threw a good ball and Nacua ran the depth of his route before cutting, “but we just weren’t on the same page.” Nacua dropped the pass. To the rookie’s surprise, Stafford ensured he’d target him again soon.

Three plays later, Nacua caught a 10-yard pass up the middle. Four plays after that, Nacua spun out of a tackle to muscle a 3-air-yard pass 13 more yards after the catch. Nacua would secure still another double-digit gain before their next miss, and ultimately reel in 10 of 15 targets for 119 yards including a 21-yard toe-dragger on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter on which he still marvels that in “the moment, they came to me.”

McVay and Stafford have now come to Nacua a league-high 52 times in four weeks, most recently in overtime against the Indianapolis Colts last week when Nacua scored the game-winning touchdown.

The NFL is learning what Nacua’s college receivers coach Junior Adams says he learned early in a tip drill Nacua’s freshman year: “The ball always found him.”

“He’s got good play strength, is able to run through contact, stay on balance,” Adams, who also coincidentally coached Kupp in college, told Yahoo Sports. “He’s not a blazer – but when the ball’s in the air, he’s one of the best I’ve been around when it comes to competing for the football.”

So how did Nacua fall to the bottom of the fifth round, 19 receivers drafted before him?

Injuries undoubtedly contributed. A broken foot stole five games from Nacua’s freshman year, before the COVID-19 pandemic and his own COVID bout limited him to three total games his sophomore year. Nacua transferred from Washington to hometown BYU for his final two seasons, where he’d miss one game to injury in 2021 and four more last year. And yet, his production was steadily increasing. He averaged 79.4 all-purpose yards per game his first year at BYU and then 92.7 last year, scoring 10 touchdowns in nine games. Nacua’s 4.59 and 4.55 pro day 40-yard dashes didn’t scream of straight-line speed, Nacua even joking to reporters afterward that he expected a call from his brother saying, “Man, you are slow.”

The Rams, who have long downplayed the combine and its associated metrics, saw a big-bodied receiver who could make tough catches available in the fifth round. They valued how he was willing and able to block defensive ends and safeties alike. They weren’t hiring Nacua to run 40-yard dashes.

“Timed speed wasn’t indicative of his play speed,” one NFL scout who evaluated Nacua texted Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity. “Always did a great job on (sports-performance tracking). Had more gamer to him than he was a refined WR.”

And Nacua was committed to that refining process. The questions he’s bombarded Kupp and Stafford with, and the “bunch of time” Stafford says they spent throwing together in OTAs and training camp, reflect a continuation of rather than pivot from his work ethic.

The last time Nacua ascended a football rung, he spent Monday nights his true freshman year at the whiteboard with Adams. Nacua’s job: draw a crisp diagram of each play.

“I drew the hashes, where the numbers were at, the route depth, if the route had any conversions,” Nacua said. “It felt like sometimes we only went over two plays because I was drawing in so much detail. But it clicked so much easier in my head, understanding.”

So while the pace of his NFL start is nearly unbelievable, those who know Nacua best can imagine the process that led to him earning Stafford’s trust in a timeline about as astounding as his race to 500 yards.

“Seeing where he’s at now really isn’t surprising to me,” Penina Nacua, Puka’s mother, told Yahoo Sports by phone. “It just makes me cry because he’s worked hard and had the best support.”

‘Mom needs her own time’

The Rams faced third-and-5 from the Colts’ 22-yard line just four minutes into overtime this past Sunday. Nacua listened in the huddle as Stafford dialed up a similar concept to one that had earlier landed the rookie a catch.

“Maybe the ball’s coming to me,” Nacua thought to himself. “I got to run, be in the exact same spot he knows I’m going to be. If the ball comes, it’s like, ‘Don’t drop it – whatever you do’ … our chance to seal the game.”

Sure enough, Stafford nailed Nacua on an in-breaking route at the 8-yard line. Nacua was in shock, both at the gravity of the moment and at the message he intuited Stafford sending: an apparent busted coverage clearing his path to the endzone.

Nacua wanted to pinch himself, amazed the Rams trusted him with the play call. Instead, he grabbed his phone and settled into a bright blue folding chair in the equipment staff’s locker room to make two calls of his own.

Nacua first group-FaceTimed his sister, four brothers and mom. They couldn’t really carry an intelligible conversation amid the screaming and laughter, not to mention the phone interference from the four siblings who had piled onto his mom’s couch to watch the game together and thus were a bit close to have simultaneously answered. But the delight on their faces was enough.

Then came the second call Nacua needed to make, the call he always makes after games before leaving the stadium.

Penina Nacua was glad her son knew the conference call wouldn’t suffice.

“I hope he doesn’t think that was his call for me,” she told Yahoo Sports. “Because in my head, that doesn’t count. Mom needs her own time because these fools were screaming their heads off and I couldn’t get a word off.”

Sure enough, Penina’s phone rang again. Puka was beaming; she began to cry.

Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua FaceTimed his mother, Penina, after catching the game-winning touchdown in overtime last Sunday vs. the Colts. (Courtesy of Puka Nacua)

Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua FaceTimed his mother, Penina, after catching the game-winning touchdown in overtime last Sunday vs. the Colts. (Courtesy of Puka Nacua)

She cried of pride at his touchdown, sadness that she hasn’t witnessed any of his record-setting NFL games in person, and gratitude for the village that lifted her son to this place, especially since her husband, Lionel, died in 2012 at 45 years old. Penina cried because of how moved she is that Kupp, Stafford, McVay and the entire Rams organization have adopted her son with the warm embrace of family. And she cried because her adult son, in the biggest moment of his career thus far, was still calling mom.

“The guy was a man today and he has been a man throughout the first three weeks,” McVay had said of Nacua after the game-winning touchdown.

In the Nacua household, Puka remembers “oddly becoming the man of the house, not necessarily a young kid in high school,” close to a decade ago. And Penina, throughout, became his everything.

“To be my father and mother, to help raise me but also coach me at the same time, put me in the right places and around the right people for me to achieve my goals,” he says. “I think of all the sacrifices she made for me and I know there’s no way I can truly repay her. But I hope that when she sees me on Sunday, when I called her separately after all my siblings and her in the same group chat …”

Nacua trails off, knowing he can’t truly put into words what this means to either of them, but knowing also that even as his phone blows up to levels challenging the “Do Not Disturb” setting he left on for more than 48 hours after the game-winner, his FaceTimes to mom will continue to speak louder than either of them can.

The Rams’ play calls may change when Kupp comes back. Puka and Penina’s postgame calls will not.

“She got emotional very quickly,” Puka said, “just saying how proud she was.”

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