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BYU football: Russell Tialavea returns for senior season after unexpected mission service

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 5:35 p.m. MST

BYU's Russell Tialavea, center, has returned from his mission to Santiago, Chile.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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PROVO — BYU will be receiving the services of defensive lineman Russell Tialavea this season following his two-year LDS mission to Santiago, Chile. The fact that he left for a mission in the first place is truly remarkable for several reasons.

There are generally three types of players with regards to handling media interviews. There are players who love to give quotes, speak for the team and even search out the media. There are those that work with the media — giving perfunctory answers when asked, but not a whole lot more. And then there are those like Tialavea.

Tialavea would go to great lengths to avoid interviews with reporters during his three years starting at nose tackle before his LDS mission. When you were able to catch him he’d do his best to serve up the shortest answers possible — preferring to spend the least amount of time with reporters as possible.

That’s OK — it’s who he is. Not all players are talkers and it’s not a requirement to anxiously engage the media with insightful quotes as often as possible.

As a missionary, however, it is a requirement. In fact, it’s pretty much all you’re doing for 12 hours a day, every day of the week for two years.

With all that in mind, it was nothing short of a shock when Tialavea accepted a call to serve a mission to Santiago, Chile almost three years ago.

“Russell came into BYU — I can’t say with no intention of serving a mission, but probably with little intention of serving a mission,” said BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall. “He really struggled in really growing, maturing and finding himself, but he did in making progress each and every year.”

In each of his three years playing for BYU Tialavea started and was set to start for 2010 before making a likely bid to play in the NFL. While most coaches would be pretty put out to lose a three-year starter for the coming season, Mendenhall isn’t that type of coach.

“One of the highlights of my coaching career at BYU is when (Tialavea) came into my office and told me that he’s going to serve a mission,” said Mendenhall. “Here’s a three-year starting lineman going into his senior year saying that he’s not going to be there. That would usually send some panic, yet there wasn’t a single coach — the hugs were probably the deepest and the embraces probably for Russell, up and down the hallway and the conversation between his parents on the phone — not only when he went, but when he came back. It’s truly been a remarkable experience.”

Tialavea returned home in December and has since enrolled full-time anew at BYU. While the timing of his mission departure wasn’t ideal, his return could be perfect timing.

BYU will be without the services of Graham Rowley and Hebron Fangupo — both of whom saw starter’s playing time along the defensive front last season — for 2012. Enter Tialavea and his wealth of experience and defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi could very well have his third starter alongside expected starters Eathyn Manumaleuna and Romney Fuga.

While he spent most of his time manning the nose position over his three years starting, he has reportedly slimmed down to around 260 pounds post-mission and will be looked at to play defensive end. It’s very hard to gauge how any returned missionary will fare athletically after being away for two years, but according to Mendenhall, most returned missionaries see success.

“Seeing the players return home from their missions has been an amazing experience for me, as a head coach, and I’ve been lucky,” said Mendenhall. “There are unique challenges in managing all of those numbers and the conditioning elements for the players coming and going, but I think through the last seven years that we’ve shown some sustainability, credibility and consistency in managing all that and still performing at a high level and I’m excited to do that for the kids too. That’s not just for the program — it’s for the kids coming back to something that is worth coming back to.”

We’ll start learning soon enough just how well Tialavea will perform for his final year at BYU starting with this coming spring practice session. While his prospects are up in the air at this juncture, it’s a relatively good bet that — at the very least — he’ll be giving better interviews.

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney

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