Four-star wide receiver Puka Nacua generated excitement from the moment he committed to Washington in February.
His talent was obvious; his arrival highly anticipated. With each game the Huskies played, fans grew increasingly restless. They wanted to see more of him. And after the UW fell to Stanford last week in a game where only one wide receiver caught more than a single pass, they were all but demanding that Nacua and the other young receivers get more snaps, more targets, more opportunities.
During the Huskies’ 51-27 victory over Arizona on Saturday night, it finally happened.
Entering the game, Nacua’s only reception was a 28-yard touchdown catch in UW’s victory over Hawaii. While Nacua had played in every game this season, he was hardly ever targeted. That changed against the Wildcats. Nacua was the Huskies’ leading receiver, finishing with three receptions for 97 yards. After an early drop, he took advantage of every opportunity.
“I’m really happy with what he gave us,” said offense coordinator Bush Hamdan. “In coverage, I think twice there he went up and made plays and those situations were critical.”
One of those plays was a 49-yard reception in the fourth quarter. With Arizona’s Christian Roland-Wallace in tight coverage, Nacua leaped along the left sideline to haul in quarterback Jacob Eason’s pass with both hands. Then he turned, breaking two tackles and dragging Roland-Wallace behind him before he was finally brought down at the Wildcats’ 10-yard line.
“He was awesome,’ said head coach Chris Petersen. “It was nice having some balls going his way. It was nice to have him in there. Everything that went his way except one, he made a play on and a couple of them weren’t easy catches, either. It was nice to get him going.”
The Huskies lacked explosive plays in 2018. That’s why, throughout spring practice and fall camp, both Petersen and Hamdan said there was a focus on spotlighting the receivers this season. It was just one of the offensive adjustments UW said they were making after the loss in the Rose Bowl.
Led by Eason’s strong arm, the Huskies showed flashes of that ability early. But it hasn’t been consistent. In many games, the shots downfield were few and far between, if they happened at all. But against Arizona, UW took some chances — and more than a few of them involved Nacua.
In high school, Nacua set Utah state records for career receptions (260), receiving yards (5,226) and receiving touchdowns (58). He was USA Today first-team All-American and was named the offensive MVP at the Polynesian Bowl. On Saturday night, as Nacua pulled down passes in traffic, it was easy to see why.
After the game, Petersen was asked if that’s what the coaches envisioned for Nacua moving forward.
“Well, we’ll find out,” Petersen said. “He caught every kind of ball in high school. We’re still kind of figuring him out. But he’s a big body. He’s got tremendous hands. He really does. … He has those strong hands that can pack the ball.”
And Nacua wasn’t the only freshman to make a statement against the Wildcats.
On the other side of the ball, defensive back Asa Turner made his first career start at safety. After the game, senior safety Myles Bryant thought back to Turner’s “wide-eyed” arrival at UW for fall camp. His improvement has been steady since then.
“He really didn’t know what was going on or where he fit in,” Bryant said. “I feel like each week, each day, he gets better.”
There’s certainly evidence for that claim, not the least of which was Turner’s start against Arizona. A four-star recruit, Turner played in every game for the Huskies this season and is listed on the depth chart as Elijah Molden’s backup at nickel back. But on Saturday, he opened the game next to Bryant.
Turner replaced fellow freshman Cameron Williams, who put together uneven performances while starting the first six games of the season. He has three interceptions, but his mistakes also led to coverage-bust touchdowns in UW’s games against USC and Stanford.
“Asa’s been playing well for the last three weeks,” Petersen said. “He goes into the BYU game and picks off a pass at the very end of the game. He goes in to the USC game and plays a handful of reps and he plays them all really well. He got into the game a little bit against Stanford.
“Everything he’s been doing he’s been doing well. Practicing better. Then I thought he played from the naked eye, pretty well tonight. It’s nice to get another DB in there you can feel confident about.”
Turner finished four tackles and a tackle for loss against the Wildcats. He has 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception on the season.
“He’s a quiet guy but I feel like the stuff he does on the field makes a lot of noise,” Bryant said. “He made a few big plays today that kind of go unnoticed. If he misses a few tackles then they might score 60-yard touchdowns. That’s something that everybody on the field notices and appreciates. Everyday he’s getting better and I feel like the sky’s the limit for him.”