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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes center Lo Falemaka (69) lines up against the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Not many players get to be part of a college football team for six years, which is an opportunity University of Utah center Lo Falemaka is relishing right now.

It’s been a long and sometimes bumpy path for Falemaka, who prepped at Cottonwood High School and experienced injuries as well as a bizarre shooting incident to become one of the team leaders for a Ute team that is expecting big things in 2018.

“Six years sounds like a lot, but honestly it doesn’t feel like a lot,” Falemaka said after a recent practice. “Because the first four years here I was injured a lot so I don’t really count them. Now that I’m getting my sixth year back it’s a blessing to prove to everyone else I can play at the next level. It’s a chance for me to show myself.”

Falemaka didn’t know until late last March just as spring football was getting under way that he would get a sixth year to play college football. He had redshirted in 2013, played on the scout team in 2014, played just two games in 2015 before sitting out the season with an injury and played mostly special teams in 2016 with one start on the O-line.

" Being a leader is easier when you have respect from everyone else. We have such a close, tight bond from everyone and everyone respects each other. With their respect it makes things a lot easier. "
Utah center Lo Falemaka

Then last year, he became the starting center for the Utes, a job he excelled at so well that he was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection. Now he’s one of the team leaders as the Utes pursue a Pac-12 championship.

A couple of weeks ago, Falemaka was named as one of the Utes’ captains for the season, along with fellow seniors Chase Hansen, Mitch Wishnowsky, Matt Gay, Cody Barton and junior quarterback Tyler Huntley. Last month he was chosen to be one of two representatives, along with Hansen, for the Utes at Pac-12 media day in California.

“Being a leader is easier when you have respect from everyone else,” he said. “We have such a close, tight bond from everyone and everyone respects each other. With their respect it makes things a lot easier.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham gushes about the progress Falemaka has made since coming out of high school.

“He’s come a long way and matured into an outstanding young man, not that he wasn’t a good kid when we got him," said Whittingham. "But he’s really grown up. He’s a leader, he’s got his degree, he’s overcome a lot, he’s had some adversity, not just in football, but off the field as well. I’m very proud of him and where he is right now.”

For a while, Falemaka was mostly known as one of the two Utes — running back Marcel Manoa was the other — who were shot by an intruder at a off-campus party the day after a football game in September 2015. That’s why Falemaka only played two games that season as he spent the remainder of the season recovering.

Falemaka talked about the incident in detail the following year — about how he and Manoa tried to get some unwanted guests to leave a party only to have guns turned on them, how he has a 10-inch scar on his abdomen, how he still has a bullet lodged in his left hip. However, he prefers not to dwell on it now..

“I definitely try to keep that in the past because it’s completely irrelevant,” he says when asked about it. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me now or my future, so I try not to think about it all.”

His future, he hopes, includes a shot at the NFL, although Falemaka is keeping an open mind about it and not worrying about it much right now.

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“I don’t have my hopes too high on that,” he said. “You always have to have a Plan B. I will definitely shoot for it — it would give me an opportunity to provide for my family and become financially stable so it would be nice for my mother and my (seven) siblings."

What Falemaka is mostly thinking about is what he can do to keep the momentum going after an opening victory and help lead the Utes to their first Pac-12 division title and perhaps more.

“We can say as much as we want, but we can’t tell until we’re out there on the field,” he said. “But I expect a Pac-12 championship this year and nothing less.”