PROVO — While he's standing on the sidelines at BYU's practice field, nose tackle Romney Fuga can't help but think about the devastating play that cost him most of the 2010 season.
In the first half of the Cougars' 27-13 loss to Nevada in Provo last September, Fuga was hit from behind, and below the waist, by Nevada offensive lineman John Bender. No penalty was called on the play, and Fuga suffered an anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament injury and underwent season-ending knee surgery.
After months of grueling rehabilitation, the 6-foot-2, 321-pound junior returned for the start of fall camp, prepared to man the starting nose tackle position — just as he had prior to the injury.
"Once I start playing, I just forget about my knee and the fact I had surgery about 10 months ago," Fuga said. "There is a mental aspect to it, and I hope I'm dealing with it well. My knee feels good. It gets really sore after each practice, but that's because we're practicing hard. I need to make sure I take care of it and get treatment every day, but it feels great."
Fuga doesn't recall much about the play on which he got injured.
"I just remember getting cut from behind or from the side. I didn't see (Bender) at all," he said. "I don't recall any pain. I was just sad about being done for the season. That's what I remember about it."
At halftime of that game, then-senior Vic So'oto removed his No. 37 jersey and donned Fuga's No. 98 to pay tribute to his fallen teammate.
"I really respect that and I love Vic for that," Fuga said. "I had the support of my teammates and coaches and trainers here while I was injured. Without the support from them and my family, I probably wouldn't be where I am now."
Fuga is savoring every moment, being back with his teammates on the field.
"When you're away from something you truly love, you have a greater appreciation for it," he said. "I have a stronger desire to play as hard as I can and play up to my capabilities."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is thrilled to have Fuga on the defensive line once again.
"He makes a huge difference to have him at nose," he said. "It's going to be really hard to run the football on us because of him."
While Fuga has seen limited action in practice as a precaution, Mendenhall is planning on Fuga playing in the season-opener on Sept. 3 at Ole Miss.
"I would say by the time we get to Saturday, with two weeks to go, he'll be ready for the first game," he said. "We're still pretty careful about where we put him and when, but he's right on track."
Fuga is looking forward to playing for Mendenhall, who took over defensive coordinator duties a week after Fuga's injury.
"It was incredible to see the change in how our defense played," Fuga said. "The next week, after coach Mendenhall became defensive coordinator, they were like a totally different defense out there. They seemed more passionate and more fired up. More guys were flying to the ball. A lot of it had to do with coach Mendenhall. The players chose to be better."
As part of his responsibilities, Mendenhall oversees the nose tackles.
"Coach Mendenhall has worked with the nose tackles the past couple of years," Fuga said. "I love the way he coaches us and the way he believes in us and trusts in us to do what we're supposed to do. I'm just grateful I can play defense for him. I absolutely love it."
Mendenhall is pleased with the depth on the defensive line, which includes Graham Rowley at Hebron Fangupo at left end, and Eathyn Manumaleuna and Jordan Richardson at right end. Richardson and Travis Tuiloma back up Fuga at nose tackle.
"We have a really great D-line. We have big guys and guys that can move," Fuga said. "We also have guys with experience. I think we'll be really good up front. I love the guys I'm playing with right now. They all push me to go harder and I push them to go harder. This is the most fun I've had playing."
And with the Cougar defense's relatively inexperienced secondary, Fuga knows the onus is on the defensive line to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"Whenever the quarterback has too much time to throw the ball, I feel like it's my fault, or the D-line's fault," Fuga said. "We're supposed to help each other. If we can get to the quarterback in short time, we'll be happy and the secondary will be happy."
Then again, Fuga is just happy to return to the field this fall.
"I'll be ready. I can't wait," he said. "It's been too long."