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Friday, August 21, 2009

BYU football: Teammates welcome back BYU's Tonga

If BYU running back Manase Tonga had any doubts whether he would be welcomed back by his teammates after he was academically ineligible in 2008, they were erased when he stepped onto the practice field Friday morning.

A round of applause first started by the quarterbacks was music to the senior's ears.

"It felt like coming home," he said. "It was just a great feeling to see all the guys support me."

Having flunked out of BYU in May 2008, Tonga began the long road back to readmission last fall when the Cougars were going 10-3 without him, and completed it earlier this week by getting good enough grades in two classes at nearby Utah Valley University.

He was watching film with other running backs before practice when the word came from BYU's NCAA compliance office that he had been accepted for readmission.

"It was an uphill battle," he said. "It was hard, but I did it, with the help of my friends here."

With BYU's opener looming two weeks from today against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, Tonga said he believes he is in good enough shape to contribute in that game.

"I think I am ready, but I think that is just me speaking," he said. "I am just anxious to get back on the field, but right now I am probably 90 percent, 80 or 90 percent."

Wearing his familiar No. 11 (which sophomore O'Neill Chambers gave back), Tonga immediately saw action in the first 11-on-11 scrimmage of the morning, and gained 30 yards on a swing pass from Max Hall. He later joked that the defense eased up to allow the big gain and make him feel comfortable.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he cannot say yet whether Tonga will get his job back as the Cougars' starting fullback.

Splitting time with Fui Vakapuna, now playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, Tonga ran for 305 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007 and also caught 27 passes for 248 yards. His greatest asset, however, might be his ability as a lead blocker and a quarterback protector.

"I am glad he is back in school, and that is most important. I am [eager] to help him in his studies, first and foremost," Mendenhall said. "The football part will take care of itself."

The coach said Tonga adds maturity and experience to the team.

"The team is cheering not only because he is back out here, but because he is at a place in his life where he can manage different things that he has got to do," Mendenhall said.

Due to NCAA rules regarding how players acclimate to summer practices, Tonga wore his helmet only (no pads) on Friday. He can wear helmet and shoulder pads on Monday and Tuesday, then be in full pads on Wednesday.

He said he stayed in reasonably good shape by playing for a local rugby team. After running through a practice for the first time in more than a year, he said things were already starting to come back to him.

Most of all, he felt accepted by his teammates.

" I feel like they are carrying on, doing what they have been doing since the winter," he said. "Me jumping in late, they are just very accepting of me. It was good to come back and to have them embrace me like that; it was perfect."

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