Sean McVay reveals he was afraid of losing Puka Nacua in draft

In October, four games into his burgeoning NFL career, Rams receiver Puka Nacua and a group of other rookies made a team-sponsored appearance at Hollywood High.

Nacua was off to a record-setting start, and he was only two days removed from a physical pounding and game-winning touchdown catch in an overtime victory at Indianapolis.

But Nacua took time to greet every Hollywood player, coach and school employee who approached him for a conversation, autograph or photo.

“I have you on my fantasy team!” one player exclaimed.

“I would love to be able to throw him passes,” said another.

Nacua, 22, saw his younger self in the wide-eyed teenage players.

“That was me,” he said, reflecting on the visit. “It feels like yesterday.”

Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick who played at Washington and Brigham Young, has grown up fast by NFL standards.

He established Rams rookie records for catches and yards receiving in a season, and he is within reach of breaking NFL rookie records as well.

Nacua has 96 catches for 1,327 yards and five touchdowns. He needs nine receptions to eclipse the record of 104 set in 2021-22 by Miami’s Jaylen Waddle. Nacua needs 146 yards receiving to break the record of 1,473 set in 1960 by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers.

Nacua could break one or both records as soon as Sunday, when the surging Rams (8-7) play the New York Giants (5-10) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua breaks a tackle against the Saints.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams are currently the No. 6 seed in the NFC. If they defeat the Giants and then the San Francisco 49ers in the season finale, they will return to the playoffs.

They also could clinch a postseason berth Sunday if they beat the Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Seattle Seahawks; or if the Rams defeat the Giants and the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers play to a tie.

So while Rams’ playoff chase is the main story line, Nacua’s record chase offers an intriguing subplot.

Nacua said he is only aware of the potential milestones because so many people brought them to his attention.

“It is kind of crazy, but it wasn’t a goal of mine coming out,” he said. “I’m grateful for the guys around me who have been able to make my journey the way it is.”

Nacua can thank coach Sean McVay, West Coast area scout Vito Gonella and director of scouting strategy James Gladstone for identifying him as a must-have addition to a team coming off a horrendous 2022 Super Bowl hangover.

The Rams had star Cooper Kupp and veterans Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell on the roster but McVay, general manager Les Snead and Rams personnel executives and assistants collectively were searching for a player of a certain mold.

“We were looking for a Robert Woods,” McVay said.

Woods, one of the first significant free agents signed after McVay was hired in 2017, was a linchpin for Rams teams that made the playoffs four times, including two Super Bowls.

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, right, greets Robert Woods.

Sean McVay was looking for another Robert Woods (2), a former starter for the Rams coach, when Puka Nacua was drafted.

(Associated Press)

“One of my favorite players I’ve ever coached,” McVay said.

The Rams traded Woods to the Tennessee Titans before the 2022 season, but McVay longed for the toughness, competitiveness and mindset the former Gardena Serra High and USC All-American had provided.

“He brought an edge to our offense that was so necessary, especially coming from that receiver room,” McVay said. “And I think Puka does a lot of the same.”

So McVay was relieved when Snead finally selected the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Nacua with the 177th overall pick.

“If we were to say that we knew he would be this good, then we would not have waited as long as we did,” McVay said, adding, “When it was getting down to it, I might’ve choked Les out if we had missed out on Puka when we were waiting so long to be able to take him.”

Nacua impressed during offseason workouts. With Kupp sidelined for most of training camp because of a hamstring injury, Nacua got first-team snaps. And when Kupp was placed on injured reserve, that opened the door for Nacua to start.

He made an immediate impression, catching 10 passes for 119 yards in a season-opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks. A spectacular 21-yard sideline reception on a perfectly thrown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford alerted the rest of the NFL.

“That one, kind of being the first one, kind of set the tone for the rest of the season,” Nacua said.

That was only one of many highlight-reel plays by Nacua.

Stafford has said that for a rookie, Nacua is “about as comfortable as I’ve ever seen.”

In a Dec. 3 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Nacua was knocked out of the game because of a shoulder injury suffered after making a leaping sideline catch. He returned in the second half and broke the Rams rookie record for yards receiving in a season.

A week later, in an overtime defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, Nacua made another spectacular diving catch.

“That was like one play I could show anybody … ‘Hey, this is how I play football,’ ” Nacua said, “and hopefully it will paint a good picture.”

Last week against the New Orleans Saints, Nacua caught nine passes for 164 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 16 yards and recovered an onside kick that sealed the victory. That was the sixth time Nacua eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a game this season.

The Rams' Steve Avila spikes the ball in celebration of Tutu Atwell's second-quarter touchdown against Pittsburgh.

Rams rookie offensive lineman Steve Avila has been given the opportunity to spike a lot of football this season.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kupp said “the biggest thing I’ve noticed” about Nacua is the first-year player’s consistency on and off the field, regardless of whether he’s experienced success or struggles.

“He’s the same dude no matter what,” Kupp said. “And I think that’s been a huge asset for him going through a rookie year that is very up and down — and obviously, way more ups than there were downs.”

Nacua has learned from, but remains awed by, veteran teammates. It remains “mind-blowing,” he said, to say good morning to Stafford and Kupp in the quarterback room.

“That’s always something sweet,” he said.

But Nacua has leaned most heavily on offensive lineman Steve Avila, a fellow rookie who has started every game. The two players share a handshake before every drive.

“Just having a rookie connection in the huddle with Steve,” said Nacua, who has tossed the ball to Avila after scoring touchdowns. “Just the ability to have somebody fresh, who’s new, a young guy just like me.”

As did Kupp, Avila said Nacua has handled instant NFL stardom.

“The spotlight can definitely change your character and influence who you are,” Avila said. “I’m happy to say I don’t think he’s changed at all. … He’s a front face of the NFL, and that’s a big thing for a rookie.”

Nacua’s performance has put him in the NFL rookie of the year conversation with Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud.

But records and awards are not his concern. Nacua is solely focused on helping the Rams make the playoffs.

“It’s been a fun one,” he said of his season, “and it’s not over yet.”

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