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Puka Nacua and the Winding Road of Receiver Recruiting

The Washington Huskies Finally Got Their Wide Receiver

NCAA Football: California at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

As far back as 2017, Husky fans could see the team needed upgrades at the wide receiver position. Dante Pettis carried the group to adequate overall production, but there was poor depth and the younger members of the corps struggled to get separation on their routes. The coaching staff made high-end signings in recruiting by bringing in four-star high school players Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne, and Trey Lowe. Nonetheless, that trio redshirted the 2018 season and the receiver production got even worse. Aaron Fuller started reasonably well but declined as the season went on and he proved that he is not a viable number one option. Despite solid overall development, both Ty Jones and Andre Baccellia looked more like decent role players than game breakers. Tight end Hunter Bryant was the best big play threat in the group and he missed most of the year recovering from an injury.

If these shortcomings were frustrating to fans, the frustration must have been tenfold for the coaching staff. A team with a veteran QB, a stout offensive line, and a star running back struggled to consistently put points on the board. Of course, the receivers were not entirely to blame (both Browning and the line played below their established level at times), but the poor play was low-hanging fruit in terms of areas for improvement. It’s always easier to make the step from poor to fair than from good to great. The UW recruiting strategy over the last year showed that the coaching staff recognized this deficit and desperately wanted to add top-end talent to the position. For a program famous for its stinginess with scholarship offers, they threw out offers to receivers like drunken sailors. The Huskies offered more receivers (13) than offensive linemen (12) and almost as many as they did defensive backs (16).

One interesting characteristic in last year’s WR recruiting was that the Huskies verged much closer to the “spray and pray” method than they did at other positions. Several top prospects received offers but apparently never seriously considered the Huskies, which is the inverse of how most UW offers go out. Theo Wease, Jake Smith, Dylan Wright, and Arjei Henderson were all four or five-star recruits who got UW offers early in the process, but did not show any obvious signs of serious interest in UW. Mycah Pittman, who eventually signed with Oregon, only looked slightly more realistic, though he did make an early visit to UW.

The first two high-end prospects who looked like realistic Husky targets were Joe Ngata and Josh Delgado. Our own Aaron Sieverkropp identified them as two of UW’s top three receiver targets at this time last year. Ngata was rated the #9 receiver and #52 overall prospect by the 247Sports consensus. His older brother Ariel is a defensive lineman for UW, which many thought would give the Huskies the inside track to signing him. He unofficially visited UW in June and it went well enough that 45% of the Crystal Balls on 247 pointed to UW. Nonetheless, Ngata took an unofficial visit to Clemson the following month and committed shortly after. Delgado, the 201st overall prospect, originally came from California before he played at IMG Academy in Florida. Most considered UW the favorite to sign him early in the recruiting process and he even stated that Washington was his leader. Even so, Delgado committed to Oregon in June and held firm to the early signing day.

Along this same timeline, the Huskies did get their first receiver commitment. Taj Davis, a three-star recruit from Upland, CA, chose UW over UCLA, Stanford, and others in May. Davis has good height and hands, but does not have the sort of explosiveness that UW coveted throughout this recruiting cycle. UW always wanted to sign two receivers this year, so Davis was a good start but missing on Ngata and Delgado created some urgency.

The next two prospects who got Husky fans dreaming were Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford. McCoy was the #9 overall player in the country and an absolute physical specimen. Unlike Ngata, Delgado, and Ford, there was never a time when UW was seen as the clear favorite to sign him, but there were enough positive signals to create some optimism. McCoy took an official visit to UW in September and kept the Huskies on his list all the way until January, when he signed with USC and enrolled in classes. Bizarrely, when Kliff Kingsbury abruptly left USC, McCoy also had an about-face. He left the school less than a month after he enrolled and transferred to Texas. His eligibility for next season remains a question.

Ford was the player for whom Husky fans likely had the highest hopes. Ford was a borderline four/five-star recruit out of Orange, California. He took an official visit to Washington in September and had glowing things to say about the program for the following months. Ford tore his ACL in his senior season, but that did little to diminish the excitement about him. He finally committed to USC at the All-American Bowl in early January. Even so, the disorder surrounding USC’s coaching staff created some uncertainty and UW reportedly stayed in touch with Ford after his commitment.

As the Huskies continued to strike out on their top targets, they had to get creative. In December, they brought in three-star Kennedy Lewis for an official visit from Texas. Lewis was not regarded as the sort of playmaker the Huskies needed, but with his 6’3 frame and blocking ability, it looked like he could at least be a solid contributor. Instead, Texas dialed up the pressure on Lewis shortly after his visit and he committed to his home-state school less than a week later.

The Huskies also reengaged with Puka Nacua out of Utah. Nacua received a UW offer shortly before he attended a camp in June, 2018. A month later, he committed to USC and appeared to be off the board. When McCoy and Ford committed to USC, it created a crowded group. Nacua was one of five receivers in USC’s recruiting class, which gave rise to questions about playing time. Unlike Ford and McCoy, Nacua did not sign a letter of intent. Instead, he took a whirlwind of official visits to UCLA, Oregon, and UW. The activity level left him unsure of his decision and he postponed a signing day announcement to Sunday night. Even then, a snow storm made him almost an hour late to the TV studio where he made his announcement. The local news broadcast felt like Kabuki theater when the anchor had to stall for time by awkwardly interviewing Nacua’s teammates. When Nacua picked UW, it was a fitting conclusion to a meandering, confusing year of receiver recruiting.

In the end, UW got an outstanding prospect. Nacua is rated as the #8 receiver in the country by 247, which is likely more reputable than the consensus rank for a player who comes from Utah, where some of the smaller recruiting services do not allocate as many resources. He is listed at 6’2, 190 pounds, which gives him the prototypical size for a #1 receiver. He runs well, he blocks, and he has great hands. 247 compared him to a young Dante Pettis. It’s everything Husky fans could have wanted.

At the same time, if UW didn’t whiff on so many recruits earlier in the cycle, would they have even continued to pursue Nacua, or would they have called it a day at the WR position? Certainly, if Ford or McCoy had chosen UW rather than crowding the USC class, Nacua might not have considered reopening his recruitment. If UW had signed Ngata or Delgado early in the process, Nacua might have been on the outside looking in. There’s no way to know for certain, but the end product is excellent for the Huskies and their fans. It just took a while to get there.