Jason Olson, Deseret News
BYU defensive lineman Russell Tialavea runs through drills at the Cougars' practice.

PROVO — While he was trying to make a play during a scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium last August, BYU's Russell Tialavea tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

In an instant, his season was over. Months of grueling rehab followed.

A year later, the junior defensive lineman says that ACL injury was one of the best things that's happened to him.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Tialavea's comeback has been "one of the great stories of the year," adding that what Tialavea experienced the past year has been a defining moment in his life.

Tialavea agrees.

"Yeah, it has," said the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder from Oceanside, Calif. "I think the ACL thing has probably helped me out the most. It's changed my whole life pretty much, along with all the help from coaches and other players. I feel like a new person. I'm just excited for this year. I can't wait until the games start."

To appreciate how far Tialavea has come, it's important to understand where he started. Named the 2004 Avocado League defensive player of the year and a second-team All-CIF selection at Oceanside High School, Tialavea arrived at BYU in the fall of 2005 as one of Mendenhall's first recruits.

But after redshirting in 2005, Tialavea was suspended by Mendenhall in the spring of 2006 for a violation of team rules. As part of the suspension, he missed the season-opener against Arizona but turned in a strong performance that year, starting seven games at nose tackle and recording 22 tackles and a pair of blocked kicks.

Expectations were high for Tialavea going into fall camp a year ago. Then came the injury, which also affected Mendenhall on many levels.

"I felt so bad last year in the scrimmage in fall camp when he got hurt," Mendenhall said. "That's one of those decisions you question as a head coach, why even have him in there? When you see ACLs happen and you know how long it's going to take (to come back), that one really bothered me."

Tialavea responded to the injury by working hard and making changes in his life.

"Russell hadn't had the strongest work ethic prior to that injury," Mendenhall said. "He's a very good player, but he hadn't demonstrated a lot of maturity, either. To me, it's been kind of a defining moment in the kid's life in terms of the diligence, perseverance and maybe maturity that he's demonstrated.

"To see him play, he's not all the way to where he was, but I think the growth that's happened off the field is the bright spot. It's been one of the great stories of the year.

"He's struggled off and on for a long time with off-the-field conduct, with the classroom, with the work ethic," the Cougars' coach said. "He has always had exceptional talent. He has declared and is working very hard. His consistency has been great. I'm really proud of him."

Along the way, Tialavea has become a better football player, too.

"He's a completely different player in terms of speed, quickness, explosiveness and playmaking ability," Mendenhall said. "He becomes now, rather than just a block occupier, he's able to make plays from B gap to B gap, which is good to have him there."

Since the injury, Tialavea has shed 20 pounds.

"I feel better conditioned," Tialavea said. "Right now, I feel better than I did in previous years. My knee's good. I feel good."

Tialavea's teammate, defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen, watched Tialavea battle back to overcome his injury.

"Russell has a better work ethic now," Jorgensen said. "He works harder now than he did before. He's trimmer. But his feet, his quickness, everything's the same. He's just a harder-working Russell Tialavea."

Jorgensen and Tialavea are two of the strengths of this year's Cougar defense.

"I can't say how great it is to have Russell back. Russell's the best noseguard you'll see anywhere in the country," Jorgensen said.

"He's got great feet, great hands and he's just so quick. You're just going to see him get better and better because he's been out of the game for a whole year. He'll just get better by the time the games roll around. It's going to be fun to watch him."

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