The Cleveland Browns drafted 10 players in the 2017 NFL Draft including three first-round picks, but undrafted rookie Kai Nacua could be one of their best additions.
As much focus is put on the NFL Draft, teams including the Cleveland Browns have found some terrific players after the draft is concluded. Isaiah Crowell, Jamie Meder, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Anthony Fabiano are some players on the Browns roster that went undrafted and have a chance to be contributors. Former BYU free safety Kai Nacua is in that same boat.
Nacua tied the single-season team record for interceptions with six in both 2015 and 2016 and owns the single-season and career record for interception return yardage for the Cougars. His skill set, production and athletic profile make for an ideal combination for the Browns and what they want to do with their defense.
I was a huge fan of Nacua’s game and hoped he would end up on the Browns, believing he could not only make the team but potentially start (no pressure), so it was exciting to get to talk to him as he prepares to compete in training camp.
Pete Smith: How much do the games against the Utah stick in your craw?
Kai Nacua: I mean (ha), Holy War. Holy War has always been, for me, one of the best games I think I’ve always played in. I’ve always had fun in it, just having the rivalry, having the hostility either at home or at Utah. Any time I see a Ute, I’ll still say “what’s up?” but that’s as far as it goes.
PS: Those two games came down to the wire (35-28 in Las Vegas Bowl, 20-19 last year).
KN: Yeah, yeah. You know, things happen in games and I know I played with no regrets, but can’t change the outcome, but it’s alright.
PS: As far as I’m concerned, I thought you were more than good enough to be drafted. How did you feel about that and how much did it surprise you that you weren’t.
KN: Going into the draft, I was prepared for the worst. I was prepared to not be drafted, because that’s what I heard. I didn’t have the speed. I wasn’t physical enough to tackle. At that point, I can only think of what I can control. I was just, “You know what? I’mma go out. I know what I can run for my 40 and that’s exactly what I did.”
I showed them the speed’s not an issue and some still question my speed. I’d never been scored on in two and a half years in college. I take that personally. I don’t let anyone score on me.
Preparing for that whole situation, it was shocking because I had teams calling me during the draft and they were just like, “I’ll be looking to get you here,” and I’m like alright, sweet, I’ll be waiting by my phone and then it comes down to that pick and they end up picking someone else.
It was very frustrating just because I knew what I expected and what my family expected of me. And just to see all my family kind of reacted after they didn’t see that has been eating at me ever since and that’s just going to push me. I have five younger brothers who are looking up to me and I’m sharing everything I can with them right now to make sure they can get drafted if they’re going to be sitting in that spot with family watching and then you don’t hear your name called.
PS: So to clarify, 4.49 40, 6.87 3-cone, 39-inch vert and 10-7 broad jump is too slow?
KN: I… for me, I don’t think that’s slow, but I still hear that my speed isn’t where it needs to be, so every day I’m working at it.
PS: To me, that’s a helluva athletic profile. Why Cleveland? The goal is to be drafted. Every kid wants to be drafted coming out, but when you do get to be an undrafted free agent, you have a little bit of flexibility in that you get to find the best situation for you. So how does that translate for you to Cleveland?
KN: Cleveland was the best spot, I felt and me and my agent felt it was the best spot for me to go and play, like potential play time to get in and affect the team the way that I do. I’ll go get the ball and I’ll make sure the defense is on point with whatever we do, because that’s what I did at BYU. That was honestly the Browns and looking at all the rosters and teams calling, that was the best option for me to go in and make an impact right away.
PS: Yeah. I look at the free safety position and after the Browns didn’t draft anybody, you already know how pumped I was to get you in here, because I think you’re going to be in a position to not only going to be in position to make the team, but it goes beyond that. A BYU show had me on (BYUSN) and I think they were even surprised how far I think this can go, even as a rookie this year for you.
KN: I appreciate it.
PS: How early did you get a feel that the Browns wanted you?
KN: I think it was about, I want to say sixth or seventh round is when I got a call from Coach (Jerod) Kruse, the safeties position coach. He was just telling me that they liked me and if it comes up, they’d love for me to go there.
They were never on the radar at first because I never had heard from them and then right when the draft ended, I think they were one of the first to call. I was talking with my agent and was like, oh I’ll have to call you back. We looked up all the teams that called and they were gonna be the best option. Coach Kruse really sounded like he wanted me there and he liked what I did on the field, so it was a perfect situation for me to go there.
PS: So you can’t rule out the possibility that my lobbying had an impact to get you to Cleveland, that maybe the coaching staff was paying attention and decided that they had to go get Kai Nacua.
KN: It might’ve been, might’ve been (laughs).
PS: In addition to the talent and athletic ability you have, one of the reasons that I thought this situation made sense — now, feel free to tell me if I’m dead wrong — when I watched BYU, you’d show Cover-2 and immediately drop to Cover-3 and it was just a question of which three would drop back and it was just a question of which three are gonna drop back. You had opportunities to come down in the box in kind sort of a joker role and then you obviously have a ton of experience playing that deep middle.
KN: Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what was going on and I did my best in everything I could.
PS: Transitioning that to now you go to a defense and again, tell me if I’m wrong, with Gregg Williams that’s going to want to show a lot of Cover-3 and Cover-1, taking a guy who has a ton of experience playing that center field role can now come in and — look it’s an NFL adjustment and everything else — but in terms of role, it’s like you are right back to what you were doing at BYU.
KN: No, yeah and that’s what they expect of me. It’s what I did in college. It’s what I’m going to do in the NFL is I go get the ball and I tend to know where it’s going to go, where the quarterback’s feeling, where he wants to look for the open guy. That’s just kinda what I do.I go find the ball and that’s exactly what I’m going to do for Coach Williams and the Browns if I get the opportunity.
PS: You had 14 interceptions at BYU and you sort of hinted at it, but how do you explain to people who you ask you how you’re able to — some of your interceptions, it looks like the quarterback simply overthrew it, but as you know, you have to be there for that to happen. So when people ask you how do that, how do you get these 14 interceptions, how do you explain it?
KN: For me, I played quarterback in high school, so I actually know kinda where the windows are and the rhythm of a throw and how the quarterback wants to get it to his receivers. So that was a big advantage for me is in like into Cover-2, so if they ran an out and streak, I knew the timing because I knew my corner was going to shoot to that flat real fast, so I knew he was trying to hit a hot, like probably 10-12 yards and I knew I had to get on top of that or pick a ball.
Even in Cover-1, I knew that we’re bringing pressure wherever he’s gonna look — it’s different in college. They can fake you out a little bit, but when pressure’s coming, you gotta get rid of the ball and you’ve gotta trust whatever way he takes you and try to go to make a play on it.
PS: The other thing that’s difficult to ignore in seeing you play is when you get the ball in your hands, you’re very unique in just how aggressive you are to going the other way. I’m curious where you developed that mentality and have you ever had coaches almost try to dissuade you from being so aggressive. And what I mean by that is there are times when you will take that big cut back and go for the big and I have to imagine you have coaches who are doing the “No! No! No! Yes!” type thing.
KN: Yeah, you know I just love having the ball in my hands and that’s what I want every time I’m back there at safety. I see the ball in the air and think, you know, that has to be my ball. I love having the ball in my hands and I do try and score every time I get it and get like the biggest return I can because yeah, at BYU, I know I had coaches, they would tell me you need to get down right here and end the game or this series.
I’m just like — the game’s still going until the last whistle blows and the clock hits zero, so in my mind, I’m like why not try and score? Of course, take care of the ball. I don’t want to give the ball back right away because I just took it from them.
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PS: You’ve been here a little while. How much does Gregg Williams stress “strong” and “free” in his scheme?
KN: To be honest, we’re pretty similar in what we do, like the strong and the free. I mean, obviously the free’s are going to be more in the backfield and playing the ball wherever it goes and he expects the strongs to be strong, you know in the box, if they bring them in there. Other than that, it’s not too different. I’m trying to learn both positions because you never know when you’ll get caught in a hurry up position, I’ll have to be the strong or something, then I have to be able to know both positions.
PS: And I’m not looking for you to out anybody, but is the situation where you’re seeing Coach Williams and Coach Kruse move guys back and forth a little bit or are you guys pretty much standard, you’re a free safety, you’re a strong safety type setup?
KN: They are…mixing it up a little bit, but no one’s set in any position really. They’re looking for the best opportunity to put guys on the field that will make plays and do what the coaches ask. I wouldn’t say anyone’s set at just a strong or just a free.
PS: With that, how much are you guys playing around with big nickel (three safeties on the field at once)?
KN: I don’t know if I can answer that question. The coaches might have to answer that question, because I haven’t really messed with it. I haven’t seen too much of that yet.
PS: Obviously from a fan and a little bit of a media perspective, obviously you’ve got guys like you, you’re that ball hawking guy, but you’ve also got guys like Jabrill Peppers or Calvin Pryor, Ibraheim Campbell who can be that strong, may bounce around to free a little bit, but the team may want to throw them in the box a little bit.
KN: Yeah, I think that might come with game plans. Certain teams may have a bigger slot or they may want to show a bigger package, but yea, I can’t get into it. I’m not really sure.
PS: Impressions of Gregg Williams?
KN: For me, I love the guy. I love his intensity. I’ve never shied away from any intense conversations or coaching the way he coaches. I’ve had it at BYU. You know, they’re screaming maybe for no reason but you just gotta know they’re trying to create chaos and just trying to see how you’re gonna play under that type of noise, that white noise that’s gonna make you lose focus. But I love his intensity, I love the way he’s coaching us. I’m just excited.
PS: Have you learned any new words from Coach Williams?
KN: Uh, I can’t say I’ve learned any new words (laughs). Maybe not yet.
PS: You’re getting ready for training camp. With everything you’ve seen and done so far, how do you feel about your chances with the Browns and the NFL in general?
KN: Right now, it’s just, I feel like, knowing what I gotta do on the field and doing it at 100 percent, making the plays I know I can make because I know the coaches have already seen the film and that’s what they’re expecting of me. They didn’t want me to come in just to not do what I do. That’s all that’s on my mind right now. Learn the playbook, then learn it to the best ability and once I know my position, I can learn other positions to potentially be a threat in other areas on the field. I’m just in a learning mindset and just ready to go 100 percent.