Not only do Manase Tonga and Fui Vakapuna share roots firmly planted in the islands of Tonga, but they are also roommates and good friends. They joke and laugh together and talk about the great possibilities of playing on the field together during game time in the upcoming season.
“All I know is if you’ve got Fui and me in the backfield; it’s dangerous,” said BYU’s sophomore fullback Manase Tonga. “You’ve got lightening and thunder in the same backfield. I'm thunder and Fui is lightening. Watch out if we are both in the back field at the same time because you have about 460-pounds of pure speed and strength coming at you.”
Former BYU Cougarback and current NFL Arizona Cardinal Safety Aaron Francisco was at Friday’s practice. He commented that Vakapuna looks like he never left on his mission. Francisco also pointed out that Vakapuna has the size of an NFL running back.
That is quite a compliment for an athlete that is just three months removed from his mission. Vakapuna insists that he is no where close to the level of preparation that he expects of himself.
“It’s been two years and it’s been kind of weird just coming back and preparing myself,” said Vakapuna. “I’ve got my legs and my ankles taped up and got the pads back on. Vic So’oto was like, ‘Oh you got the pads on!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, its weird!’ But having the pads back on feels good and I’m ready to go to work.
So’oto’s surprise at seeing Vakapuna in pads comes from the time that then Elder Vakapuna spent with the So’oto family as an LDS missionary. Vakapuna was a frequent guest in the So’oto home when Vic was being recruited by BYU. Since swapping his white shirt, tie and name tag for a blue jersey, helmet and cleats, Vakapuna is spending his time trying to master a new offense.
“Right now I’m just trying to get the plays down,” said Vakapuna. “I’m a bit rusty with the plays, but I know as spring goes on I’ll pick it up and be more comfortable with my sets. That’s something that I feel I need to work on but I know I can get the plays down.”
What Fui may lack in offensive understanding he has made up in physical play. At 238-pounds Vakapuna has the ability to turn the corner, break tackles or run over defenders.
“Actually that’s one of my fortes,” said Vakapuna of his aggressive style. “I just want to get better as a player and as a teammate. I think my legs feel okay, but I think there is room for me to improve. I think my speed is better than before. I was pretty heavy before I left on my mission.
“I think I have the power and the speed and try to be well balanced overall. I try not to be just a tailback who is too physical and always hitting heads. I try to slash sometimes and cut by reading my holes.”
The nicknames do not stop with “Thunder” and “Lightning.” Tonga, also has a name what will happen when both he and Vakapuna are on the field.
“We're like “Shock and Awe” baby,” said a smiling Tonga. “We’re “Thunder” and “Lightning” and we can both carry the rock you know. That’s what makes us so interesting to watch. We’re both the same build and we can both do the same job, and with the offense that we run, a lot of the tailbacks have to learn the fullback spot because we run a two back set. You both have to know both rolls. With me and Fui back there it will be nice to watch."
Vakapuna’s goal is to help BYU regain the national prominence it had is years past. Like a crafty magician, Vakapuna intends to bring a supernatural flavor to the field.
“I think what I contribute to the team is I bring a little spice and I’m the magic stick,” said Vakapuna. “We have to bring back the glory days and bring back the magic of BYU. I’ve already redshirted and my plans are to play. I want to contribute to the team in any way I can to help out the team. I want to bring BYU football back to its glory. I’m excited and I’m ready.”
In high school, Vakapuna was selected over Haloti Ngata (the former Oregon Duck) as the most valuable player on his Highland Rugby club. Vakapuna feels the lessons he learned playing rugby have helped him to become a better football player. Vakapuna once had to rely on his own abilities to get the job done. In football, he has help.
“I think as a rugby player there are more wide open spaces,” said Vakapuna. “I played wing and fullback and when I could break out past the defensive line I think I could use my abilities in those open spaces to get that touchdown. Now in football I have blockers and I can read their blocks to shoot the holes that help me get to past the defensive line to make a play. What the backs say is, ‘Give me four, we score.’ That means if you get me four yards we’ll score every time.”
Playing the wing in rugby, Vakapuna outran his opponents to the outside. He will now use that natural speed to run around linebackers if the need arises.
“Those times will come,” said Vakapuna of his. When a linebacker or a safety comes up on me when I’m running around the outside, my first thoughts are I want to run around him, but if he is close I’ll hit him or try to knock him down. I just try to do what ever I can to make that play or what ever I can. If I can’t go around him, just go through him.”