PROVO — One sweltering afternoon during fall camp, BYU running back Harvey Unga was telling a reporter about how hard he had worked during the offseason overcoming illnesses and injuries. It had been a long time since he had felt so healthy after battling a variety of health issues during his sophomore year.
The next day, Unga injured his hamstring during a routine drill and was sidelined for the remainder of camp. He was forced to sit out of the Cougars' season-opening 14-13 victory over Oklahoma.
As he's returned to the field, Unga has looked like his old self, gaining 97 yards on the ground against Florida State, 113 against Colorado State and 118 against Utah State. Despite missing playing time early on this season, Unga leads the Mountain West Conference in rushing. He's rolled up 345 yards on the ground, averaging 86.2 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. He's also scored five touchdowns.
Who knows what Unga will do Saturday (8 p.m., The mtn.) when the Cougars visit UNLV, a team that allowed 559 rushing yards last week against Nevada?
Now that Unga is close to full strength, the Cougars are benefitting.
"He adds a whole new dimension to our offense," said BYU quarterback Max Hall. "I've been blessed to have Harvey with me my whole career. He's done a lot of good things for our program. Now to have him back healthy is going to be a huge boost for us as we go forward."
With 2,713 career rushing yards, Unga needs only 509 yards to become the Cougars' all-time leading rusher.
"There's no question, Harvey's an elite player," BYU running backs coach Lance Reynolds said. "His presence is felt when he's out there."
Given the frustration of that hamstring injury, as well as a broken pinkie suffered in the Colorado State game, Unga is thrilled to be playing again. Through his setbacks, Unga maintained a positive attitude as he focused his energies on supporting BYU's other running backs — Bryan Kariya, Manase Tonga and J.J. DiLuigi.
"There's always two perspectives. You can be pessimistic and frustrated. You can get down," Unga said. "I can't say that I have been. For me, it was frustrating being hurt and not being able to contribute to the team after contributing the last two years. But to see those other guys succeed and fill that role, I can't explain how happy and ecstatic I was. I was full of joy for those guys and what they were doing."
On the eve of the Oklahoma game, Kariya, a former walk-on who prepped at Davis High, visited Unga and Tonga in their hotel room in Arlington. Knowing he'd probably play in Unga's place against the mighty Sooners, Kariya was looking for encouragement.
"It was good to be there with Manase and Harvey, two guys who know what they're doing on the field and have the confidence and experience to get it done," Kariya remembered. "Talking with them about their experiences and how to approach the situation we were in, it calmed my nerves a little bit."
As it turned out, Kariya played a big role in that upset of OU, rushing 17 times for 42 yards and catching four passes for 76 yards in a performance nobody saw coming.
Well, almost nobody.
"I knew he was going to do awesome," said Unga, who stood on the sidelines at Cowboys Stadium, smiling and enthusiastically waving a towel. "I knew he was going to break out. I've seen him play in high school. Bryan's a playmaker. I wasn't surprised at all."
Kariya has appreciated Unga's attitude and support.
"Harvey's a great friend. He's not so pretentious that he gets angry about somebody else stepping in and getting reps if he is injured," Kariya said. "I don't think there was anybody who was more happy for us to win against Oklahoma than he was. That's the person Harvey is. He really is concerned about our team doing well and the running backs doing well. We're all friends . . . He's not going to be selfish about something like that. It's just great to have that support behind us and hopefully we can do the same for him throughout the rest of the season."
BYU coaches awarded Kariya a scholarship before the season and he's showed why.
"He's been preparing for a while," Reynolds said. "He's a great execution back who plays hard. He's a real smart guy who doesn't make many mistakes. He can be an effective weapon."
Tonga said the running backs pulled together even more after Unga's hamstring injury.
"Our group got really close, really fast, mainly because we knew we lost Harvey," he said. "He was going to be our workhorse. It made us realize that if we were going to be successful running the ball and be a factor in the game, we needed to pull for each other and we needed to support each other. Ever since that week, it's just gotten stronger and stronger as far as our camaraderie."
Reynolds is happy with the overall depth and experience in the backfield.
"They do really well together. They all have a role and they've all been playing," he said. "The nice thing is, when one of them isn't there, the others pick up the slack."