Dick Harmon: BYU's Uani Unga the latest Unga to star on the football field
Matt Gade, Deseret News
Uani Unga is the other guy. He’s also one of many other Unga guys.
He’s a link in an ever-growing chain of football players from the Tongan Unga family tree that have taken up football and excelled.
BYU’s 3-4 defense is designed for linebackers to make plays. Coach Bronco Mendenhall couldn’t have designed a mold more perfect to slip Unga into for his defense.
Uani, a middle linebacker, plays alongside BYU superstar Kyle Van Noy. At times, Unga's talent, the speed at which he makes plays, and the volume of his work is overshadowed by the highlight filmmaker and Butkus Award nominee Van Noy.
But Van Noy knows how important his teammate is.
“Man, he’s a soldier,” said Van Noy. “He’s playing with a broken hand. A lot of people could sit out with that, but he does it violently and physically and as a leader. He does a phenomenal job at it.”
Unga leads BYU’s defense in total tackles with 84. Van Noy, who is often double-teamed and targeted by offensive coordinators, has 46, part of a trio with that many tackles (corner Robertson Daniel and linebacker Austen Jorgensen also have 46 stops).
BYU’s record for single-season total tackles is a decade old, set by Aaron Francisco in 2003 with 116. That number is in Unga’s wheelhouse in 2013.
When BYU’s defense is wrecking havoc on an offense, chances are Unga is in the middle of the chaotic pile.
Get this, Unga has had double-digit tackles in each of his last four games. That includes 15 tackles (five solo) against Boise State; 13 and seven at Houston; 10 and five against Georgia Tech; and a whopping 16 and four at Utah State.
Those numbers are nuts.
But it is in his blood.
Uani is a cousin of Harvey Unga, BYU’s all-time leading rusher who only had three years to establish his career mark for the Cougars. Harvey’s uncle, Fine Unga, starred at Weber State and played in the NFL.
They are descendants of two brothers and their wives, Anitelu and Lulama Unga, and Sioeli and Seletute Unga, who immigrated to the United States from Tonga. Anitelu and Sioleli are from a huge family consisting of 10 sons and two daughters. You could fill a bus with the football players these two brothers and their wives have produced.
From Anitelu and Lulama, you have a son, Fine Unga, and grandsons Harvey Unga (running back at BYU, Chicago Bears), Victor Unga (defensive tackle at BYU), Spencer Unga (outside linebacker at Weber State) and Morgan Unga (safety at BYU).
From Sioleli and Seletute, you have Paul Unga (defensive tackle at Arizona State), J.J. Unga (offensive tackle at Midwestern State now with the world champion Baltimore Ravens), Feti Unga (middle linebacker at Oregon State), Uani Unga (linebacker at BYU), Tui Unga (tight end at Fresno State) and Christopher Unga (defensive tackle at Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High).
Also, there is Tony Pulu at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College. His mother was an Unga. In his home, Uani grew up with his father's sister's kids (cousins) that included Viliami and Alani Latu, who play at Arizona State.
And these are just the Unga football players I came up with in text message exchanges with Harvey and Fine. On deadline, they were still researching other cousins playing from Eueless, Texas, to Northern and Southern California.
That’s quite a production in two generations of the Unga family that came to this country in the '60s.
And right now, Uani is at the forefront of a streaking Cougar team led by a head-knocking defense.
In his monster game at Utah State, Uani forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and had that career-high 16 tackles. It was one short of a single-game record set by his coach, Kelly Poppinga.
Broken hand? Taken to the hospital after the Virginia game for chest pains? Leading the team in tackles almost every game?
This Unga is a Superman.
The Oregon State transfer is a gift to BYU, an Unga that’s worth his weight in gold for Mendenhall.
“He’s big and physical and consistent. He’s playing as good at inside 'backer right now as I’ve seen or coached since I’ve been here,” said Mendenhall.
If he can stay standing up, this is a kid that could get 50 more tackles.
That would blow up BYU’s record book.
“I know these boys make their grandparents proud, getting an education and playing football,” said Fine Unga.
There’s a lot of folks out there who are mutually grateful for their Unga DNA.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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