PROVO - Brigham Young running back Curtis Brown was planning to get married in California this weekend and has missed the last few practices at fall football camp.
The Cougars sorely would miss their 1,123-yard rusher from a year ago if for some reason the senior All-America candidate should miss a game or two this year. But at least they know they have some potential stars ready to step in, if the need arises.
Chief among those is Fui Vakapuna, the former East High star who returned from an LDS Church mission in January.
Remember Vakapuna? He ran for 157 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries as a freshman in 2003, and showed some flashes of brilliance, especially against Utah and Boise State, before serving his mission in Carlsbad, Calif., for two years.
After spring ball, BYU coaches said they couldn't remember having an athlete return from a mission in better physical condition than Vakapuna was in, and some joked that he must have spent more time in gyms than ward houses.
"It was just having a vision of what I wanted to do when I got home, and the motivation to do it," said Vakapuna, noting he got out of bed at 5:30 a.m. some days to work out at local parks. "Trust me, we worked hard [on missionary-related activities]."
Vakapuna was far and away the most pleasant surprise of spring camp, and his teammates say he has picked up where he left off after a week of fall work. He picked up a little extra work in Brown's absence the past few days, and his fellow running backs are marveling over his ability.
"He's living up to the hype," said Manase Tonga, a sophomore running back from San Mateo, Calif. "He's doing better than anyone expected, and now we have a good problem [in terms of depth]. We want to have a lot of good backs, not just one or two."
The battle is on to see who will be Brown's primary backup, and also to see who will replace the graduated Fahu Tahi, who rushed for 507 yards and six TDs last year. Sometimes, Brown and Tahi were in at the same time, but mostly the Cougars went with a one-back set.
Vakapuna is listed at No. 2 on the depth chart, and will likely rotate in when Brown comes out. Tonga will likely be used like Tahi was last year, as a blocking back, a ball-carrier and someone who can catch the ball.
Of course, Vakapuna can do all those things as well, and the Cougars are also high on Harvey Unga, the former Timpview star who sat out all of last year and will be a true freshman this season.
Wayne Latu, who got seven carries in 2005 and scored a touchdown, will redshirt this year.
"At this point, I don't know exactly what my role is going to be," Vakapuna said. "I want to be known as a playmaker, and someone that does whatever it takes to help his team win."
Vakapuna, who was a two-time first-team all-stater at East, said he hasn't set a lot of individual goals this year, but, "hopefully I will get over 100 yards [rushing] in at least one game."
It could happen, but perhaps only if Brown isn't around.
"It's Curtis' senior year, and we want to make it special," Tonga said. "We want to send him out with a bang."
After that, the Vakapuna Era could really kick in.

Rapid Return
BYU sophomore running back Fui Vakapuna, who missed the last two seasons while on an LDS Church mission, has been one of the most pleasant surprises in fall camp. Here are his freshman numbers:
Year Games Carries Yards TD
2003 8 30 157 1