Puka Nacua has a history of favorable first impressions.
Most recently, Washington’s freshman wide receiver introduced himself to Husky fans (as well as the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors) in unforgettable fashion last week, turning his first career catch into a 28-yard touchdown. But that’s just the beginning.
And, yes, we have proof.
Exhibit A: Ross Apo and the accurate answer
“What are your goals?”
Every time he trains a wide receiver, Apo — who played the position at BYU from 2010-14 — begins with the same question. It’s a standard starting point, an easy way to set expectations and benchmarks for the athlete to reach. In his three-plus years working with wideouts in Utah, Apo has received a predictable pattern of popular answers.
But few followed through quite like a soon-to-be sophomore at Orem High School with hands and feet too big for his body.
“He said he wanted to go D-I, win all of his games — kind of just your generic answers,” Apo recalled of his first meeting with Puka in 2016. “So I told him, ‘Winning all your games and being a starter in high school, those are all kind of expected. Dig a little deeper.’
“So he said he wanted to break records and be an All-American, because at the time (current UW wide receiver) Ty Jones was an All-American. So he pretty much just wanted to beat what Ty did.”
In 31 career games at Provo High School, Jones — now a 6-foot-4, 213-pound UW junior — piled up 134 catches, 2,760 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns, en route to being named a U.S. Army All-American. When he headed northwest to Washington, he left a high bar behind.
But no matter. In 45 games at nearby Orem, Puka claimed state records for career receptions (260), receiving yards (5,226) and receiving touchdowns (58), as well as season receptions (103), receiving yards (2,336) and receiving touchdowns (26). He was named a first-team All-American by MaxPreps.com and USA Today, and he earned offensive MVP honors at the Polynesian Bowl to boot.
In other words: he broke records, and by just about any measure, he beat Jones.
But not by accident.
“It got to the point (in the summer before his sophomore season) where we were almost out every day, working. For several months he’d just be doing the same thing over and over and over and over, until he got tired of it,” Apo said.
“He ended up doing everything he said he wanted to do after we dug a little deeper.”
Exhibit B: Jeremy Hill and the improbable poster
The Nacua family moved from Las Vegas to Utah in 2013, when Puka’s oldest brother Kai accepted a scholarship to play safety at BYU.
Puka was a soon-to-be seventh-grader — and NOT a wet giraffe.
“A lot of bigger kids kind of move like wet giraffes, right?” said Jeremy Hill, who coached Puka in middle school and later as the coach at Orem High School. “They haven’t really grown into their body. But even though he was on the bigger side, he still moved incredibly well. He had the same kind of body control he has now and was able to cut and juke and still hit that top-end speed even though he was a seventh-grader with Size 13 or 14 feet.
“I knew right away the kid was special, not just because of what he does on the field — which in every right of its own is extremely special. But he’s just got such an infectious personality. He’s a rare breed that just loves the game.”
Puka was the star receiver who also begged to play scout team quarterback. He was the one who argued when Hill opted to end practice a period early. If an opponent touted another talented pass-catcher, Puka seamlessly flipped to cornerback and smothered him into oblivion; on obvious passing downs, he moonlighted as a ball-hawking safety (and snagged two interceptions in both of his last two seasons).
So yes, it’s a cliché to say a kid just loves the game.
But that doesn’t make Hill’s first impression of Puka any less accurate.
“The thing about it is, he enjoys it,” said UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams, stretching out the syllables for extra emphasis. “He goes out to practice every day, and he’s smiling. He’s ultra-competitive. Those are the types of guys you like to be around.”
In all, Hill was around Puka for six years and 260 varsity catches.
But you never forget the first one — especially when you see the photos.
It came in the first game of Puka’s freshman season, when the 14-year-old with the big hands and feet ran a slant from the Uintah Utes’ 8-yard line. Orem’s quarterback delivered a pass that Hill was sure would skip off the turf for an underthrown incompletion.
“Puka’s maybe six inches off the ground, parallel to the ground and somehow goes down and gets this thing. It’s his first-ever varsity touchdown,” Hill said. “I blew the picture up and gave it to him as a poster.”
Like Neo in “The Matrix” dodging bullets, Puka stretched horizontally, snatched the ball with two hands and seemed to momentarily hover over the turf — simultaneously stiff-arming the laws of physics and providing an unforgettable first impression for Orem fans. It was an exceptional display of athletic acrobatics (and not just for a 14-year-old freshman).
But, four years later, that’s not what Hill remembers most.
“He sprinted over and jumped into my arms. I’ve got a picture somewhere of him giving me a big ol’ hug after his first varsity touchdown,” Hill said. “More than the athleticism, more than the phenomenal catch … him sprinting over, running right to me first and giving me a hug, that will always stick out more than the catch itself.”
So, to summarize: Puka’s first career catch was also his first career touchdown. And after it was over, he sprinted to the sideline and jumped into the arms of his coach. It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime leap. It would, without a doubt, never, ever happen again.
Exhibit C: Junior Adams and the receiver room
OK, it happened again.
It happened nearly four months after Apo told The Times, “He’s gotten faster. He’s gotten bigger. By Game 3 he should be rotating with the (starters).”
It happened nearly four months after Hill said, “Puka told me by the time it was Game 4, when they play BYU, that he’ll be starting by then. I realistically think if he’s not starting he’ll be a contributor right away.”
Specifically, it happened Saturday, in the first quarter of Washington’s 52-20 win over Hawaii. With Puka split out wide, junior quarterback Jacob Eason faked a bubble screen and catapulted a cannonball 28 yards into the corner of the end zone. The 6-1, 204-pound freshman with big hands and feet snatched the ball over his shoulder, lifted both arms in the air, pointed at the name on the back of his jersey — Nacua — and released a guttural growl.
Puka’s first career catch was also his first career touchdown. And after it was over, he sprinted to the sideline and jumped into the arms of his coach (again).
“I always remember my players’ first catches,” said Adams, who played wide receiver at Oregon State and Montana State. “I remember their first touchdowns, and I know just from playing the position how cool that is and how that feels.
“I tell you what: When he scored the other day and he’s running over to the sideline, you see all the receivers waiting for him right there. So it wasn’t just about me. You could tell he was running over to me and we chest-bumped or hugged or whatever. But all those guys just came to him, and that tells you how close all those guys are in that room.
“To me, his catch, his touchdown, isn’t just about him. I think it’s about that receivers room.”
Maybe so. But on Saturday, UW’s road game against BYU will be at least partially about Puka. The former four-star recruit will return to the region where he spent the past six years of his life; where his brothers, Kai and Isaiah, both played for BYU; where he broke records, beat Ty (at least, statistically) and made no shortage of memorable first impressions.
Where he has since converted a community of Utes and Cougars into Washington football fans.
“Yeah, this is one of the exceptions that I’ll make to put on different colors,” said Apo, a former BYU wide receiver who plans to wear purple and gold inside LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday. “This is a special exception. I look at Puka as like a little brother to me, because we spent a lot of time together. I don’t really care what people have to say if they see me in UW stuff, because it doesn’t really concern them.”
Added Hill: “There will be a lot of people who are Puka fans here in Provo and Orem that will be there in Washington gear supporting him.”
A lot of those same people were not surprised to see Puka’s first career catch (and touchdown) on television last weekend. For another new fan base, it was a heck of a first impression. But for Puka, it was all part of a larger pattern.
Now let’s see what happens next.