After missing most of spring camp and receiving limited to no reps during the more physical scrimmages of fall practice, Vakapuna feels he is currently at around 95 percent ready to go all out at this point in time. That percentage should increase over the course of the next few weeks as the Cougars prepare for Arizona.
“Every day I feel better and better,” said Vakapuna. “Today I feel better than yesterday and yesterday I felt better than the day before, so I’m feeling good and I think physically I’m doing well. Truthfully, I feel around 95 percent.”
Earlier internet reports indicated that Vakapuna had been instructed, whether by team doctors or by trainers, that he should avoid cutting while running so as not to not re-aggravate the injury. With the demands that practice place on the running backs, asking the athletes to not make such adjustments on the run, either cutting, stopping and shifting direction, would make such a report seem highly unlikely.
“No, no it’s pretty much just do what I feel,” Vakapuna said. “I’m to be free spirited out on the field because at our position they give us a lot of options on what we can do when we run the ball. I think the biggest thing for me is to just start feeling comfortable again running the ball. I just need to get over that mental hump of knowing now that I can cut.
”I think it’s just a mind game I have with myself,” continued Vakapuna. “I think when I’m into it I just go out there and do it and don’t think about it. Sometimes I look back and I think, “Oh dang I did that!” Right now my progression is just working towards getting comfortable every day where I’m not thinking about it any more. I’m happy with were I’m at right now.”
Last year, Vakapuna’s style of play was a brand of smash mouth football where he and his fellow running backs wore down defenses setting up the passing game more effectively. Vakapuna knows that he has to try and add some diversity to his ground and pound style of play in order to establish career longevity.
”Oh yeah, I’m trying to improve my overall style of play,” Vakapuna said. “I’m learning to use more stiff arm. Also if there is a chance for me to stray away from tacklers instead of running over them to keep me from getting beat down, I’m going to try and do that more. I’m trying to be more of a one cut and go type back.
“ Since I’ve been here I haven’t been consistently healthy, and I think that’s because I play too much smash mouth football. I love the smash mouth game of football, but I know that when it comes to practicing it’s more about doing other things.”
On top of working towards developing a quicker game rather than a bruising one, Vakapuna is also working on, and has noticeably improved over the course of fall training camp, another aspect of his game.
”I know that it’s not just about running the football and blowing someone over,” Vakapuna said. “Every running back on every team can run the ball. It’s about learning other things like learning how to do the option, catching the ball and to be a better blocker. When it came to catching the ball, I was rusty. Now I feel more comfortable catching the ball from Max [Hall] and haven’t caught a ball from him until the first practice.
”In this offense you have to be able to do everything, and we as running backs put that burden on ourselves. These are the types of challenges that we want. We want to improve.”
Having at one time been labeled as one of the top rugby players in the country out of high school, Vakapuna, while watching from the side lines recovering from last year’s injury he suffered during the San Diego State game at Lavell Edwards Stadium, realized he needed to add a touch of patience to his running game.
“You know it’s a lot different than rugby,” chuckled Vakapuna. “When you play rugby you don’t have any blockers in front of you. You just get the ball and go straight ahead as fast as you can. Last year while I was standing on the sidelines, I was able to see a few things. I know now that I have to be patient.
”A lot of times I wasn’t patient and now I can see where the blocks are. I think I’ve been more patient this year playing football than I ever have throughout all my life. This was a good thing for me because while I was injured I was able to watch the other guys run, and I was able to see where I needed to work more on my game.”
Prior to his injury last year, Vakapuna was at a playing weight of around 245 pounds. This year the junior running back is currently down to 235-pounds. He is currently trying to lose some of his bulk to help facilitate the style of running back play he is working towards.
”Last year my playing weight at game time was at 245 pounds,” said Vakapuna. “This year I’m 235 pounds and so I’m losing weight. I’ve actually lost a lot of weight and I think I’m still going down. I think 235 is a good weight for me.”