May 24, 2024

The name, like the mane, is wavy and lyrical.

Puka Nacua.

“It flows so wonderfully,” said Sam Lagana, Rams stadium announcer. “Pooo-kah Nah-kooo-ahhh. To give it that Polynesian flair with respect to his culture, and you can just see that smile come busting through his helmet.”

What’s not to love?

The rookie receiver from Brigham Young has made NFL history — 39 receptions for 501 yards, both records for a player’s first four career games — and last Sunday he made the game-winning reception in overtime at Indianapolis.

“With some evaluations, you’re like, ‘OK, we think this kid does this good, does this not so good, let’s take a chance on him,’ ” said Les Snead, Rams general manager. “But then there are those players where [coach Sean McVay] is already game-planning with him while he’s watching him at BYU. That’s Puka. They don’t come around often.”

The easygoing Nacua has been rock solid for the Rams in the absence of All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp, set to return from his hamstring injury Sunday to face the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

It’s natural to draw parallels between Kupp and Nacua, both of whom rocketed to prominence in the NFL after garnering too little attention from teams at the top of the draft. Kupp, who played at Eastern Washington, was a third-round pick in 2017. Nacua was a fifth-round steal in April.

Both players ran 40-yard dashes that were plodding by NFL standards. Kupp covered the distance in 4.62 seconds, Nacua in 4.57. That delighted the Rams, who understandably wanted all other suitors to lose interest.

Puka Nacua before a game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Nacua’s long hair has become recognizable.

(Zach Bolinger / Associated Press)

“I definitely knew I could play faster and move faster than that,” Nacua said. “So when that time came out, I was a little shocked I was that slow. But it worked out great.”

There are distinct differences, too, between Nacua and Kupp.

“Puka’s a big, strong beast,” Snead said. “Cooper’s a more nuanced route runner, more precise getting in and out of breaks. Puka probably wins on density, power, overwhelming people.”

Nacua can de-cleat you on the field and disarm you off it. His dark curls spill out of the bottom of his helmet and sometimes poke like pigtails out of vents on top.

It wasn’t always that way.

 Puka Nacua's hair flails in the air during the NFL combine.

Nacua’s hair was an eye-catcher at the 2023 NFL Combine.

(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

“There were times when his mom almost threatened to not let him play unless he got his hair cut,” recalled Jeremy Hill, Nacua’s coach in youth football and later at Orem [Utah] High. “Mom was a pretty strong lady, so I doubt if it was an empty threat. Now he’s got that long mop on top of his head.”

That is said with love, because everyone seems to hold Nacua in high regard.

“We’re all so impressed with him,” Rams safety Quentin Lake said. “If anything, we want him to go out there and break every record he can as a rookie. We’re all riding for him.”

By happenstance, Nacua was in the Coliseum stands for a Rams game during Kupp’s rookie season. It was a 34-0 blowout of Arizona, and Nacua and his Orem teammates were in Southern California for a game later that week against Santa Margarita High.

“We were leaving the Coliseum and everybody was chanting,” Nacua said. “We had our whole high school team from Utah just screaming, ‘Whose house? Rams’ house!’ That was my biggest memory.”

Nacua was particularly close friends with Hunter Hill, the coach’s son, who played left tackle from youth football through high school.

Hill and Nacua spent endless hours playing “Madden,” sitting shoulder to shoulder in their youth football uniforms and pads. Nacua always took the Green Bay Packers.

They went their separate ways after high school, Nacua playing football at the University of Washington before transferring to BYU to play a season with one of his five brothers. Hill played tackle at Utah State.

Hill is now in graduate school at BYU and was working at a shoe outlet Sunday when Nacua and the Rams were playing the Colts. The TV in the back of the break room was tuned to the game, and Hill kept slipping back there to catch a glimpse of his buddy.

“I was trying to stay as low-key as possible,” Hill said. “But when Puka scored that touchdown, I kind of blew my cover. I got pretty loud.”

Nacua smiled upon hearing that. Blown coverage. Poooooka. He’s getting used to that.

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