"It's been a long road for me," said Unga. "I've learned a lot and I've been through a lot. Right now I'm still learning and it's a big process to go through, but I'm making the most of the opportunities that have been given to me. It just kind of opened up for me and it's made my role a lot more urgent. It's here and now so I have to rise up to the challenge and step up to this opportunity."
The positive pressure to rise to the occasion has created a sense of urgency that has taken center stage on Unga's mind.
"It's time for me to step up and in a sense it's positive pressure on me," Unga said. "The coaches always expect the most from you and now it's my turn to show them that I'm here to show them that I'm ready to give it. It's time for me to be sharp and on top of things. I can't be the guy who is chilling in the back talking to Fahu [Tahi] or Curtis Brown or something like that. I have to be the guy in front doing the things that need to be done and helping the guys behind grow. It's a learning process, but at the same time I have to be the one who knows everything and go from there."
Having been involved in limited action during last spring camp, a once-caged Unga is now ready to bust things wide open in the hopes that this recent opportunity will yield greater results down the line.
"Spring was a building block towards fall for me," Unga said. "The whole time I was going through spring, the coaches wouldn't let me scrimmage. It was a little bit of a setback, but not too much in the sense that it was more important for me to learn the offense. It was more important for me to learn the offense and understand my role than to go out and hit someone. Spring was a time for me to work on my mental abilities rather than my physical abilities."
After suffering a season-ending injury as a true freshman, Unga now has no mental blocks standing in his way of going forward.
"I'm not worried about my hip and I'm not worried about the physical part of the game," said Unga. "All that mental stuff is all behind me now. I could care less and don't worry. I just go out there and play like it never happened. If I came back in early I might have dwelled on those things, but I don't really think about what happened in the past. It's all behind me now and now it's time for me to go big or go home."
While standing on the sidelines observing as a team supporter last season and during spring camp, Unga was able to learn different techniques and styles of play from his fellow running backs.
"When you watch your teammates you learn how they play the game," said Unga. "You learn how they do things out on the field. Curtis [Brown] had a specific way of doing things where he was a slasher and could get through the gaps. He wasn't so much as a bruiser like Fui [Vakapuna] or Manase [Tonga] are. Everybody has specific talents and do specific things that play into their roles on the team. I want to learn those things they did and incorporate them into my game in order to be able to contribute in both aspects. I'm trying to learn from both Manase and Fui how to run where I can punish guys and block. Curtis was a guy that, when he came out of the backfield, he always made the first guy miss with his cuts, and so I'm learning from both [types of runners] and it really helped me a lot by watching their style of play on the field."
During today's "thud," or down-by-contact, practice, Unga was able to receive many reps carrying and catching the ball out of the backfield. The freshman tailback had to pull in the reigns a bit in order to walk that fine line of playing hard and fast while not hitting his teammates with full contact.
"I felt I did good today, but as I always say there is room for improvement," Unga said. "There were some plays where I felt I was able to do some things out there. It's kind of hard with these thud pads because you want to just go out there and hit somebody, but the coaches always yell at you to stay up on your feet and to not go to the ground, so it's kind of hard to really go all out. In one ear I have Coach Anae saying, ‘It's alright to hit the hole hard and don't stop.' Then I've got our defensive guys saying, ‘Don't hit our guys so hard.' It's fun though and it's a fast pace type of practice where you run a lot of reps while walking a fine line between being aggressive while not trying to hit anyone too hard.
With the team running through their offense and defenses under such circumstances, many might interpret the dismal stats from practice reports as something of a failure. However, the purpose of today's thud practice focused more on position mastery than seeing how many yards and touchdowns one could rack up. Once the team dawns their full practice pads, the coaches will allow the players to go all out.
"The purpose of the thud drills is to help us learn more position mastery than to see how hard you can stick someone," said Unga. "It's more for us to learn which gaps to hit, who to block and how to block them. It's not so much that we are trying to pound guys and score touchdowns, but rather that the big guys up on the front line can get a good look at who to block and for the running backs to make the right reads."
For now, Unga is all smiles, as he knows he'll be given the chance to fully participate in the up-and-coming full-contact scrimmages in preparation for possible playing time on September 1.
"I'm excited about the thought of coming out here and contributing more and as much as I can," said Unga. "It's a great feeling to be out here playing with these guys and helping them out as best I can. This is one of those moments that I've been given to try and excel after not being able to for so long. This is a real blessing for me the Lord put out in front of me, and I have to take it and run with it as best I can. I've been working hard for this moment and I'm hoping that things can pay off for me in the way that I'm hoping for now that I've been given a greater opportunity to shine this fall."