"It's good as far as conditioning goes, but it's a little harder to hold ground," said Tialavea regarding how his slimmer makeup has affected him. "I feel a lot faster, a lot faster. I'm a lot lighter on my feet and can move into position quicker. When you're quicker you can draw the double teams more."
"One thing about Russell is if it's a reach block or a base block he's quick enough to get around it because of his size and quickness," said senior center R.J. Willing. "It makes us have to try and double team him, but when we do come down on him with a double team he might have a harder time holding that. It is a bit of a give and take. Either you have the size to hold a position or you have the speed to try and get past it. At his current weight he is playing phenomenal. I'll take any Russ."
Tialavea has always possessed a quick first step and burst off the line of scrimmage, and that was when he came in at about 300 pounds. The leaner and sleeker Tialavea is now even quicker and faster off the line, but the best thing about his new size is he is able to sustain that capability for longer periods of time.
"When you're better conditioned you can play more snaps," Tialavea said. "I wanted to be able to go quicker and faster for longer periods of time. The biggest challenge for nose guard is reading. Everybody reads what the other guys are doing but at nose guard you have to fight every single play. It's like a boxing match every single play and when you're quicker and lighter you can force the issue more. When you're lighter you have more endurance and can keep fighting for longer periods of time. It's going to be that way with everyone on the defensive line."
There was a time when Tialavea's presence on the defensive line was in doubt. He had put in his mission papers and was planning on leaving earlier this year, and although he has his mission call, the big defensive lineman will play this season and then leave December 30.
"It was more of a timing issue and really just bad timing," Tialavea said. "I'm still really excited about going though. I've already got my call to Santiago, Chile. When I got my call I called my best friend who is fluent in Spanish. I've already talked to some of guys that have served there. They said they were excited for me. They said they were more excited for me to go than for me to play [football]. That is what I love about this team."
According to Tialavea, those on the team that are excited about his mission call feel they would have been fine without him this season. There has been the addition of Romney Fuga to the lineup, and he has surprised everyone with how fast he's acclimated himself back into Division I football following his mission. In addition, Coach Mendenhall on Thursday said Tevita Hola is the most improved player on the team.
"The reason why some on the team are more excited for me to serve is because we now have Romney and a new and improved Tevita Hola," said Tialavea. "Tevita Hola is 100 percent a different man out there and Romney, I don't know how he did it, came back a better player than when he left."
Fuga has only been home from his mission for just more than six weeks. Tialavea said that despite Fuga having been away from the game for two years, he's somehow become a better player.
"He's a much better player now, I know so," said Tialavea about Fuga. "He's quicker, stronger and more powerful. I don know, man. He's just a different type of player now despite being gone for a few years. I guess in Madagascar you just work really hard over there, and now he's getting all of these blessings because he's surprising everyone."
"I honestly don't feel stronger, because there weren't too many weights in Madagascar," said Fuga with a laugh. "I did lose some weight while I was out there, and so even though I've been away from the game for two years I do feel quicker. I also still remember the game plan that was taught to us by Coach Kaufusi, so I still know what to do and what's expected of us from a defensive lineman's perspective within this defense."
Since serving his mission, Fuga has gained a greater perspective about playing the game of football. It's a perspective he never had before. He credits this perspective to his missionary experience, which taught him how to be fully committed towards a specific goal.
"I think another difference in me from before my mission is I'm more committed now than I was before," Fuga said. "I'm more determined to work harder and be more committed every single play. I think this is something that I learned from the mission field. I remember when Coach Mendenhall used to talk about us being absolutely committed to this program, but I really didn't know what that meant until I went on my mission. I didn't really know what it meant to really commit yourself to something or to a goal. I think that is something my mission has taught me. I just want to show the coaches that I'm giving it my all and that I'm ready to do whatever they need me to do.
"I'm really surprised that things have come faster for me. I'm really surprised that I've been able to get to where I'm at so quickly. I was always taught and believe that if you serve a faithful mission you'll be blessed. I think this is just one of the blessings, I guess."
Along with Tialavea, Tevita Hola is another player that has gone through a sort of physical transformation. According to Tialavea, Hola is going to be a stronger contributor to the team in the middle because he's better conditioned in similar fashion to Tialavea.
"That guy has a motor now," said Tialavea about Hola. "Before he wasn't that well conditioned and therefore couldn't contribute at a level that was hoped, but now that's not the case. Now that he has a motor he can play comfortably and can just go, go, go with every snap. Off the ball he's much quicker and is now knocking people around.
"He's looking really good and wasn't here when I first got here," said Fuga of Hola. "I think we're going to be really strong at the nose guard position because we've got three guys that are working really hard. I think we're going to be good this year."
"Overall, I'm much more impressed with this defensive line because everyone has made the change," Tialavea said. "Everyone is faster, stronger and has done what was needed to raise the level of play across the defensive line. I'm impressed with everyone and with Romney and Tevita. Those guys are going to be big-time contributors this year."
"I always look to Russ as an example," said Fuga. "He's a really good player and I always try and play like him. He's quick and explosive off the line and is kind of the leader of the nose guards. I just try and do everything that he does because he's really good at it."
A strong defensive middle provided by a three-deep lineup will be music to the ears of BYU fans everywhere.