The reasoning was sound, as there was little to gain but a lot to lose by Unga taking a full or even limited amount of reps during live drills. As BYU's top back with a large degree of separation between him and those behind him on the depth chart, he's one of the more valuable commodities on the team.
All Unga has done during his past two seasons is shoulder just about all of the tremendous workload assigned to the primary running back in offensive coordinator Robert Anae's system. During those years he's been beat up considerably, and entered this past fall camp with nothing to prove and nothing to gain by getting reps.
The plan was working as well as many could have hoped until they eased him back into live work a week ago.
"I go out there for the first time and I get hurt," explained Unga. "It was incredible that it happened. It wasn't a bad injury; I just pulled my hamstring. But wow, you rest and rest, do nothing and then the first time you get live reps, you pull it."
So back to the sidelines he went, participating only in light drills until he tests it out again and sees if he's in game-shape Wednesday or Thursday. Regardless, he aims to get a full amount of work against the Sooners, as he has against every team in his previous two seasons.
"Oh, I'll play, trust me," Unga said. "Right now I feel good. I've played with it feeling a lot worse. I'll be fine and I'm very excited to go out there and play against those guys. This is the type of game you love to play, the type of games you live for, really. This is why we all play, to be on a stage like we'll be on."
Although he certainly prefers to play and to practice, Unga has enjoyed being on the sidelines for a specific reason.
"I feel it's my job to teach the guys behind me," he related. "That's been real fun seeing these guys, guys like J.J. [Di Luigi], Bryan Kariya, Malosi Te'o, and I really don't want to miss any of them since they've all been so great in competing, I've really liked watching each of them step up their game and get a lot of the reps I'd normally have during practice."
A latecomer that immediately picked up with first-team reps was Manase Tonga, who appeared as if he had never left. Indeed, after three years of being a primary fixture in the Cougar backfield, he knows it all regarding what Anae's offense is and his role in that offense.
Tonga provides consistency and versatility. He knows when and where to release on passing routes, who to block when faced with blitzes, how to effectively lead block, and obviously how to hit the gap and make yards as a primary running back.
"You can't say enough about how much he means to our offense and how much we've missed him," remarked Unga. "He does it all. He knows this offense better than anyone and you could see it the first day he was back. Having him back? It's huge."
With a hopefully healthy Unga, joined by the capabilities of Tonga and the promise of those behind them, BYU looks to mount a viable running attack against Oklahoma's front seven.
"Oh, we have to run the ball," said Unga when asked about the importance of the ground game against Oklahoma. "Most people don't think we can, but I think we can and that we'll be effective. I like our guys up front and we're confident going in. Yeah, they're very tough, but I think we're up to the challenge."
Eight is Enough?
Most teams wouldn't dare travel with anything less than 10 offensive linemen, but BYU plans to play against Oklahoma with only eight and maybe even seven offensive linemen available for the game. Coaches are still considering true freshman Fono Vakalahi as the eighth offensive lineman, although they're hesitant to burn a year of eligibility.
With Matt Reynolds fully expected to play and with virtually all of the offensive linemen being cross-trained at most of the line positions, coaches feel they'll be okay in regards to depth. Marco Thorson is expected to start at left guard, although Braden Hansen is listed as the starter at the position on the depth chart currently. Ryan Freeman is the other option at the position and has seen a lot of practice reps with the first-team here of late.
One would think that at least some of the team would be hesitant and a bit nervous heading into a game against a marquee opponent on the biggest of stages. I went around Tuesday's practice looking for just one quote showing trepidation, but it wasn't to be found.
"How can you play football and be scared?" asked wide receiver O'Neill Chambers, who will be making his first start on Saturday. "This is what you live for, chances like these. Yeah, nobody thinks we'll win, but so what? We're confident and very excited. I live for chances like these, I think we all do."