SALT LAKE CITY — Tauni Vakapuna has made up ground quickly. After missing spring ball to help his mother recover from a kidney transplant, the walk-on senior has climbed back onto Utah's depth chart at running back. He's currently No. 2, behind frontrunner John White IV and ahead of projected contenders Harvey Langi and Thretton Palamo.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it's a tribute to Vakapuna's work ethic and concentration.
"He's not real fast but is powerful, and he's quick. He's got great vision. That might be his best asset," Whittingham explained. "He understands where to hit the hole and if it's not there, he's got great vision to make an adjustment."
Vakapuna is adept at dealing with changes. He's got the resume to prove it.
Since rushing for more than 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns on Hunter High's 14-0 state championship team in 2003, Vakapuna has served an LDS Church mission to the Philippines and played football for Dixie State College. He wound up transferring to Utah, where he could better help his ailing parents.
Things worked out on the field as well. Vakapuna scored a touchdown in the Utes' spring game in 2010 and led the team in rushing in the three fall scrimmages that followed. The junior backed up co-starters Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, appearing in all 13 games last season — netting 79 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
In the midst of Las Vegas Bowl preparations, however, Vakapuna's focus changed. He learned that his mother would undergo a kidney transplant — a day before the surgery. The donor was one of his sisters.
Approaching final exams added to the hectic time.
"It was nuts," Vakapuna said.
When things finally settled down a bit, there was little time for football. Vakapuna chose to leave the Utes and help his mother, who had been on dialysis for some time, get better.
"He made the right decision," Whittingham said. "It was the thing he needed to do at that point and time."
"It's not one I regret," he said of his decision. "My mom will always come before the program."
The Utes, though, also remained close to Vakapuna's heart.
As Vakapuna's mother and sister recovered from the surgery, the 5-foot-9, 229-pound running back wound up returning to the team.
"Honestly, I thought I was done," Vakapuna said. "Until I came to a practice and I missed it."
Vakapuna had developed a lot of friendships in the program and was welcomed back with open arms. He's having fun in camp and loves the grind even though it's often tiring and exhausting.
"I'm happy just being here with the team," said Vakapuna, who has 90 yards rushing over the first two scrimmages. He's adjusting well to the tweaked scheme favoring more downhill running under new offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
"There's no sideways running with Tauni. It's all positive yards. He runs with good pad level," Whittingham said. "He runs behind his pads very well. He's a punishing runner. He'll dip his shoulder and come out after you."
Those who know Vakapuna aren't surprised he's in the mix at running back. Camp opened with White, Langi and Palamo considered the tri-leaders on the depth chart.
"He's just a good running back. He was a good running back last year but we had Matt and Eddie," said quarterback Jordan Wynn. "So he's kind of getting his chance now, and he's taking advantage of it."
It hasn't been easy. Vakapuna said the biggest challenge was getting back in shape.
"I got lazy during my break," he explained. "I was just taking care of my mom and stuff."
Vakapuna, however, has rapidly returned to form — even doing so with a sore knee.
"I was fortunate to be with Matt and Eddie and some of those guys from last year. I saw how they worked through their injuries," he said. "So I'm just following their footsteps, trying to pass on the torch, I guess you could say."
As for Utah's new stable of running backs, Vakapuna insists "they're way good." He said White fits through the smallest of gaps and teams are going to pay for it if they miss a tackle on him.
Vakapuna's goals this season don't include any individual accolades. He simply wants to do whatever the team needs.
"Team comes first," Vakapuna said. "That's always been my motto when it comes to playing football."
It's an attitude that is appreciated by the Utes.
"He's a great teammate. We missed him in spring. It was a real downer not to have him in spring," Whittingham said. "We knew there was a chance we would get him back in fall but we weren't sure. When he was actually able to rejoin the team it was a big plus for us."
As such, he added, they're "elated" that Vakapuna is back.
"He's a great kid. He doesn't say much. He's very quiet," Whittingham continued. "All he does is get the job done. He's a guy that is very productive and goes about his business without much fanfare."
And there's more.
"The thing that really sets him apart is his toughness," Whittingham said. "He is as mentally tough and physically tough as anybody we have on the team. That really is something that is a strong suit for him."
Utah camp report
DAY 13: A morning practice at Ute Field.
STANDOUTS: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said backup quarterback Jon Hays continued to take steps forward. The first offensive line also drew praise for their pass protection and effectiveness with the run game.26 comments on this story
INJURIES: Quarterback Jordan Wynn missed practice for the second consecutive day because of illness. Defensive end Lei Talamaivao was scheduled to have his injured foot evaluated by a specialist.
NEXT UP: The final two-a-day of camp features a morning practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium and a late afternoon session at Ute Field.