PROVO — Before last Friday’s victory over Utah State, BYU senior middle linebacker Uani Unga decided to change up his gameday routine.
“That day, I just kind of relaxed,” he recalled. “Sometimes I’m trying to get ahold of my wife and see how my (two) kids are doing sometimes. That day, I told my wife I wanted to keep to myself and just see how it worked out.”
Well, that routine worked out pretty well.
If it seemed like the 6-foot-1, 233-pounder was all over the field at Romney Stadium, it’s because he was.
Not only did Unga have a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, he also recorded a career-high 16 tackles against the Aggies — just one short of the all-time school record, held by current outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga.
“I’ll probably be doing that more often, and hopefully my wife doesn’t mind,” a smiling Unga said of his gameday routine.
Unga — who is the cousin of BYU's all-time leading rusher, Harvey Unga — had no idea, until after the game, that he had collected that many stops.
“It was a surprise to me that I had 16 tackles,” Unga said this week. “I didn’t even know.”
This season, Unga leads the team in total tackles, with 45. He’s also recorded 2 1/2 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
He’ll likely rack up a lot more tackles Saturday (5 p.m., ESPNU) when the Cougars host Georgia Tech and its triple-option attack.
This week, Unga is absorbed with stopping that offense. BYU held the Yellow Jackets to just 157 yards and a field goal a year ago.
“It’s a lot of running. Our front seven has to be ready to come out and play. They like to run that triple option and shove it down your throat,” he said. “They basically are in one formation the whole game. Our play calls will be very few. That will allow us to play fast, like last year. Everyone has their own assignment. If you know what you have, everyone will be fine.”
Unga’s play this season has drawn high praise from coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Uani’s tough. He’s playing really, really well,” he said. “He’s big and physical and consistent. He’s playing as good at inside ‘backer right now that I’ve seen or coached since I’ve been here.”
When told about Mendenhall’s comments, Unga replied, “It’s a surprise, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here. I’m glad I’m able to play as one of his top middle ‘backers.”
Unga, a transfer from Oregon State, has played a big role on the Cougar defense all year. In a season-opening loss at Virginia, Unga recorded a team-high 10 tackles despite suffering a chest injury in the first quarter.
"He made it all the way to the second-to-last series (of the game)," Mendenhall said. "Finally, he just couldn’t go anymore."
After being checked at a Charlottesville, Va., hospital after that game, Unga was limited in practice the following week. But he hasn’t missed a game this season.
“I’ve been banged up lately, injured here and there,” he said. “Last Friday, it was my mind being able to be free. The coaches did a good job of preparing us for that game. I was able to play fast and focus on what I needed to do.”
The key play in the Utah State game came when Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton went down with a season-ending knee injury. Unga was right there when it happened.
“On that play, I was on that tackle when he went down,” he said. “Right when we hit the ground, he yelled in my ear. I saw him grab his leg. You don’t want that to happen to any player, even on the opposing team.”
Both Unga and fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy made it a point to show their respect for Keeton as the trainers helped him off the field.
“When he got up, I kind of tapped him and told him to keep going and come back strong,” Unga said. “Hopefully he comes back next year and works hard.”
Mendenhall said the actions of Unga and Van Noy are “relatively uncommon in college football.”
And he supported that wholeheartedly.
“I think it’s the right thing,” Mendenhall added. “I think that both Kyle and Uani respect Chuckie. They knew what kind of player he is, knew what kind of leader he is, and knew what he’d done for their program. We were looking forward to that challenge and they prepared and watched him really closely. I think that gesture was out of respect for what kind of person and player he is.”
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