Tonga's situation puzzling

It’s been a few days since the news of Manase Tonga getting booted out of school hit the streets. But the results will last a season.

Manase Tonga’s absence this fall will ding the Cougars.

The experienced, multiple-use utility back was the most consistent all-around performer in the backfield when it came to reading defenses, knowing all the plays and formations, picking up blitzes, being a receiver and running the ball.

Harvey Unga is a better receiver and runner. Fui Vakapuna, when healthy, is a better runner. But Tonga’s versatility was significant because he could do it all and had a calming influence in the offense and he was the best on the team at playing multiple positions in the backfield.

So, this is a big deal.

But what the bigger deal may be why he got into academic trouble in the first place.

Tonga is not a dumb jock. That?s why this is such a disappointment for BYU?s staff.

With the support system BYU has created for student athletes, it takes a major slip in focus to run off the classroom road and get into this position. It entails failure to do the work, failure to utilize the posh academic facilities which include tutor assistance and academic counselors at the disposal of every athlete, failure to overcome placement on probation, a precursor to being suspended from school, and a failure to respond to “runners” who routinely check on athletes whose academics are in jeopardy.

No, this one is a stinger to Bronco Mendenhall, the football team, his teammates, the BYU system, and most of all, to Tonga.

Everyone has been harping about all the nuts and bolts of a great system Mendenhall has put together since he became head coach at the end of the 2004 season. And it has been remarkable. But Tonga’s failure in falling through safety nets set up to ensure he did not fail signals a bold truth: There is no substitute for personal responsibility.

This is the second time in less than 12 months, Tonga has faced issues of failure to deliver what would appear to be routine performance requirements. Last summer he spent time in jail just before his marriage due to failure to pay minor traffic citations.

Vakapuna will be the most likely candidate to slip in to more reps at fullback. He’ll have to become a far better blocker than he’s shown. But in his defense, he has played the last two seasons with injuries and just barely started to return to form this spring practice.

This will force Robert Anae to give Unga more reps. Ideally, you’d like to give a star like Unga about 15 to 22 touches in the offense – not wearing him down or risking injury when he is tired or winded. Unga was underutilized at times last year but it would be foolish to have him carry the ball 25 to 30 times. Then, he’d become just like backs at SDSU, UNM and other MWC schools who get injured at in the middle of the season and hurt the team when they can’t practice or play in crunch time. As it was last year, Unga got hurt in the Utah game, practiced sparingly for the SDSU game and the bowl game with UCLA. He nursed a sore hand all season long.

The Tonga situation may shift how BYU uses Unga and all of that may not be good throughout a season.

On a positive note, it will also open the door for freshman J.J. Diluigi to have more touches in his freshman year this fall after redshirting in 2007. Wayne Latu has had streaks of great running, mostly against second and third team defenders in non-contact action, but he’s a candidate to help spell Unga and keep his reps within the formula.

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