PROVO — Linebacker Uani Unga had little to no desire to transfer to BYU from Oregon State, but someone else did.
As a result, Unga ended up at BYU last year, and one season later he feels acclimated and at home in the new environment.
Unga is a 6-foot-1, 219-pound inside linebacker who prepped at Hawaii's Kahuku High before deciding to sign with Oregon State, along with his twin brother Feti, out of high school. He elected to serve a mission and Oregon State coach Mike Riley elected to hold his scholarship for two years, for which Unga was grateful.
"He didn't have to, but promised he would and it's something I'll always be grateful for," said Uani. "I know that there are a lot of coaches that won't hold offers for players while on their missions, but coach Riley — he's just a standup guy and that was one of the reasons why transferring from their program was so difficult."
So why transfer?
Most football transfers come as a result of not fitting into the program or not finding success on the field. Neither was the case with Unga, who saw significant playing time in each of his two seasons as a Beaver and very likely would have had an opportunity to start the following season.
The desire to transfer came from Unga's wife, Lachelle, who had a newborn child. With Uani being gone for most of the day, she felt alone and wanted to be closer to her family in Utah.
"When you get married you don't make decisions just for yourself," said Unga. "My family is my first priority and always will be. If it was just me — no way I would have transferred. I loved it at Oregon State and still miss a lot of the things there. It's a great program and I had a lot of success there."
Most LDS transfers to BYU have at least some ties to Utah, if not to BYU specifically. A lot of them have BYU in the back of their minds as a desired destination, but not Unga.
Having grown up in Hawaii and Southern California, he didn't have many ties to BYU. He followed them casually growing up, but never had a big desire to be a Cougar and wasn't all that familiar with the school when the decision was made to transfer.
Compounding the issue was the fact that he'd have to sit out a full year before playing due to NCAA transfer rules. A lot of incoming players feel more a part of the team and the program when they're able to play immediately.
"That was really tough — probably the toughest thing about joining BYU's team," said Unga. "I tried not to think about how I'd be playing if I stayed at Oregon State, so yeah, it was hard getting through that season knowing that I could play but wasn't allowed to."
Unga was able to practice fully, however, and proved himself as a capable performer who would vie for a spot on the two-deep roster this year.
"Uani has shown to be capable since Day 1," said inside linebacker coach Paul Tidwell. "He obviously has some good experience playing at Oregon State and he'll help us. He just has to stay healthy and he'll really help us this year."
Staying healthy has been a problem here of late for Unga. He sat out the first week of spring due to a nagging hamstring injury and then, after finally returning, injured his shoulder and now won't be able to participate until fall.
"It's incredibly frustrating," said Unga. "I want to play so bad — I've been waiting so long, but I'll get through this and we'll be fine when the season comes."
Finding a spot at inside linebacker isn't an easy proposition. Yes, the team has both of its returning starters from a year ago in Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga, but players such as Zac Stout, Tyler Beck and Manoa Pikula have all proven capable this spring, giving Unga a lot of players to beat out in order to play.
"We're all battling, but we're all good friends too," said Unga. "We feel that we're very strong at inside linebacker with a lot of guys who can play, so that's what it's all about — helping each other and encouraging each other. That's what BYU is about."
Although he was reticent to leave Oregon State at first, Unga now feels fully engrained in BYU's unique culture and is very thankful that his wife led him to Provo.
"This is my home now and it feels like home," he said. "I feel better as a person, as a husband and as a player now and I don't think I would have made the strides that I have if I stayed at Oregon State. I still love Oregon State and will always be thankful for the chances I had there, but BYU is my home now and I couldn't be happier with how things worked out."
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