"Romney is teachable and he listens and he wants to be good," said Coach Kaufusi. "He got off his mission last June and here he was playing for us that year. That's something that doesn't happen very much, especially at that position. He listens and does exactly what he's supposed to do."
As a sophomore, Fuga saw action in 11 games last year and started in seven of them following an injury to Russell Tialavea. He had one sack and 40 tackles, including 16 solo tackles and three for a loss. Nevertheless, this offseason he has been working on improving.
"The biggest difference with me now from last fall is I've definitely become stronger," Fuga said. "I think that's the biggest change with me personally. I didn't feel like I was there last year but I feel like I'm there now. I did come back from my mission in shape and quicker than before I left, but I didn't come back stronger. The coaches have also told me that I'm a little quicker off the snap this year than last year. I don't know if I feel any quicker but I trust what the coaches are saying, but I am stronger this year for sure and that's something I've noticed."
Fuga's strength isn't the only thing that has improved.
"I also think my confidence level has increased over the past year in playing the nose guard position," Fuga said. "That's another area where I've grown. Coach Mendenhall and Coach Kaufusi have done a great job in helping me improve, and because of that my confidence level has grown. I still have a lot to learn and those things I'll work on over spring practice. This is a time to clean up a lot of things with technique and try to be better with what our coaches tell us. We're trying to be better with our position mastery."
As Fuga mentioned, he has benefitted from being coached by both Coach Mendenhall and Coach Kaufusi.
"Every day Romney is working on position mastery and the little fundamentals to be a great nose guard," said Coach Kaufusi. "Coach Mendenhall takes those guys for 10 minutes every day and works on nose guard stuff so I can focus more on the defensive ends. It's a way for us to utilize our time more effectively. We get a lot done that way."
Fuga played last season with more experienced players and could rely on their experience. Now he's one of the veteran players and knows he has to be the one that can be leaned upon if needed.
"It's definitely a change because I've always looked toward Brett [Denney] and Jan [Jorgensen] as leaders," Fuga said. "I would always ask them questions about different schemes, but Matt [Putnam] and Vic [So'oto] are doing a good job. I still trust them, but as a group we still have a lot to learn and work on. We're new guys and we haven't made a name for ourselves yet, but we're out here fighting every day and trying to get better. We're really feisty and trying to get better during every practice."
Although athletic, capable and growing with every practice, the defensive line isn't yet where it needs to be.
"I think the hardest and most challenging thing is just being consistent within the scheme," Fuga said. "Jan and Brett were just consistent and did exactly what was needed to be done in order for the group to be successful. They made perfect reads and did what was required to be successful on a consistent basis. I think we're just as good as they were but we just need to do what is required of us on a more consistent basis every single play. We have to do our job and what is asked within the system every single play."
"We gotta get these guys playing at a high level of physicality and not try and do all the other things that might take away from what's needed," said Coach Kaufusi. "Sometimes when you got guys that are capable athletically and are finesse players, there is a tendency to lose some of that physical play. So just teaching these guys to stay disciplined, play within the system and be physical on a constant basis is what we're doing."
It takes a special type of person to play the nose guard position within the 3-3-4 defense.
"I'm basically double-teamed every play, so that's going to be what I'm up against no matter what, but hopefully that can help with having a good pass rush on the outside," said Fuga. "It can also help make things easier on me if those guys on the outside do their job. If they don't do their job then it can make it harder on me in the middle. The way it works is if we all do our job, then it makes it easier on each other. "
"The nose guard position to me is a very tough position," Coach Kaufusi said. "You have to be one tough guy to play in there, and not everybody wants to play in there. You've got the center and the two guards coming at you all the time and the angles they're taking, so you have to be a really good technician to play in there."
The defensive line can't simply be judged on how many sacks or tackles it accounts for, as there are other ways it can contribute that don't show up in the stats.
"If you can take up blockers, clog up the lanes, control certain points of the offensive line and make things easier for the linebackers, then you're successful," Fuga said. "You don't make very many big plays – well, what people would normally think are big plays – but that's our role as d-tackles. We try to flat-wall those creases to make sure the ball isn't being run up the middle, and at the same time do things that allow other parts of the defense to work within their responsibilities."
"His job is to keep the center or the guards, depending on where he lines up, off the linebackers," Kaufusi said. "So we're working on those fundamentals. When we're recruiting we're looking for those wrestler guys because they play with leverage and they're used to be in the trench all the time. He does a good job in taking up space and not letting people off that easy. He has to not let people off that easy to get to the linebackers, and he's a big body in the middle and can take up ground. There are techniques that we use to help with that every day."
Although it might be tough gauging the amount of success a nose guard is having, one sure way to know is by seeing how well the linebackers do their job. Fuga joked about wanting everyone to know that if the linebackers are having a good day, it's because of him.
"I have to make sure I do things the create opportunities for the linebackers to make plays, and I'm okay with that," Fuga said. "You know you're not going to be able to make every single tackle, but we know on the defensive line that we are part of a bigger picture. We have to be a team player and work within the system so the defense as a whole can be successful. If you work outside of that, then the whole thing can break down. You can't be selfish. I take big pride when we stop the run. Whether it's the linebackers, the safeties or me, I take pride because I know I was successful in what I did and that helped my team a lot by allowing that to happen. Most people don't really understand that and that's okay.
"I know that if I get my butt kicked on one play, it affects the linebackers behind me. It has a trickle-down effect where the linebackers might not be able to get into the right gap or position to make a play. It puts more pressure on me, but if I have a good game then the middle linebackers have a good game, so you'll always know if I had a good game by how the linebackers do. If the linebackers have a lot of tackles, that's because of me."