As a BYU star, Kai Nacua was known for his temperament and emerged as one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the country his senior season. He parlayed that into one season with the Cleveland Browns, starting three games as a rookie, and is now with the Baltimore Ravens.
None of that matters to Puka Nacua.
The youngest brother in a clan that also includes Utah receiver Samson Nacua, Puka’s confidence, skill and ability as a wide receiver would give him no fear in a one-on-one matchup against his NFL sibling — hypothetically, of course.
“He could get this work, too,” said Puka jokingly after a hot, humid practice at Orem High.
Wait — maybe he wasn’t joking?
Nacua’s confidence should send tremors down the spines of every defensive back and defensive coordinator on Orem’s schedule this season. Nacua believes he can make every catch. He knows how good he already is, with the humility of knowing how far he still has to go to be the player he hopes to eventually be.
Physically, Nacua is as imposing as any wideout in the state, which is one of the reasons he’s a consensus four-star recruit and the premier offensive skill position player in Utah high school football this season before he heads off to Southern California, which he’s committed to ahead of Washington and BYU.
Nacua is 6-foot-2 and a sturdy 195 pounds. He runs a sub 4.5 40-yard dash, meaning he has the speed to burn through a secondary and beat you over the top in addition to his ability to go across the middle and make tough catches. He’s able to line up either in the slot or on the outside, and Orem takes advantage of that versatility.
Want to know why the Tigers are the defending Class 4A state champions, have one of the most feared offenses in the state and are favorites to make a run at another title? Nacua is a significant part of that equation, the youngest brother in a premier football family, but comfortable enough to stand out on his own merit.
“He’s a special player,” Orem coach Jeremy Hill said. “Everyone sees what he does on the field. But his intelligence is what truly sets him apart. He’s a coach on the field and people never understand the true value of that. People never realize how smart he is. And, physically, I’ve never coached a player as talented as he is.”
With Kai Nacua playing in the NFL and Samson Nacua coming off a 29-catch season at Utah as a freshman last season, it’s not surprising how good a player their younger brother has already become. And observers who would know say that Puka can be the best of the bunch.
The Nacuas are a close family, both by blood and by need. They moved to Utah from Las Vegas in 2012 during a difficult time when their father, Lionel, passed away. Lionel Nacua was a strong voice, a powerful figure who held the family together. His void proved difficult to overcome, especially for Puka, who was in the seventh grade at the time of his father’s death.
“It was hard,” Nacua said. “It was definitely different, not having him around. But moving out here, it took our mind off of it. We settled down and eventually we realized our dad wasn’t here, and that we had to be strong for each other. It’s been a long recovery.”
Puka credits his mother, Penina, for holding the family together and pushing it forward through difficult times. She rules her house with strict guidelines designed to prepare her sons for life both on and off the field.
Last week, Samson Nacua started a minor controversy when he congratulated his brother for committing to USC and praised him for thinking outside the proverbial Utah box. But Puka says he never saw the story — he’s mostly been without a phone for about three weeks after he missed a curfew by five minutes.
It’s one example of how Penina Nacua makes sure her son never strays from a path many recruiters and talent evaluators say he’s destined for. Puka has a chance to be a high school All-American, is already a state champion, and ranked as one of the top players in his class throughout Utah.
And none of that matters in his home.
“My mom gave me the phone back just to check my text messages for the recruiters,” Nacua said, laughing. “I saw that I missed an offer from California. They thought I had disappeared.”
As his recruiting profile continues to brighten, his relationship with his brothers becomes more close-knit. They, along with Orem wideout coach Ross Apo, himself a former standout receiver at BYU, have become nurturing figures in Puka’s life.
Kai Nacua, in addition to being one of BYU’s more high-profile players, took on a father-figure role behind the scenes. Much of Samson and Puka’s personal and athletic growth can be attributed to his strength and leadership.
Samson and Puka became best friends because they are close in age and play the same position on the field. Puka and Samson have worked together for much of the offseason — running routes, lifting and eating right.
The work’s paid off for Puka. When you look at him, he’s lean but muscular at the same time. He’s 195 pounds and wants to get bigger. And, for as much as he’s focused on this season — Class 4A Orem opens at home against Class 6A Bingham on Thursday in Orem in a premier matchup between two defending state champions — Nacua is looking at what he’s going to face in the future.
“I know that I’m going to have to become a better route runner,” Nacua said. “When I get to the Pac-12, the defensive backs are going to be much better than what I’m going to see this season. I have to be strong and I have to be smart.”
Since he brings up the Pac-12 — why commit to the Trojans? He says it’s simply where he felt most comfortable. It doesn’t hurt that Southern California annually has one of the best offenses in the country, emphasizing the passing game.
The thought of living in Los Angeles doesn’t hurt. And Southern Cal has shown the ability to recruit in Utah effectively, with former prep stars such as Salem Hills’ Porter Gustin and Bingham’s Jay Tufele set to play important roles on the Trojans defense this season.
“It felt like home,” Nacua said. “USC just felt like home. My mom is from Orange County, and my brothers, they told me to go to the place where I felt the most comfortable. USC’s a team with a lot of players from a lot of backgrounds, so I loved it. With my brothers being in different places, I had to be comfortable, since I wasn’t going to be seeing my family all the time.”