There were many afternoons last season when Utah defender Lei Talamaivao sat on the wall outside of the Smith Center watching his teammates practice.
Suffice it to say he is much happier as a participant this season than being an observer.
Talamaivao, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound sophomore, is back in the starting lineup at tackle for the Utes after breaking his leg two games into the 2008 season.
He tried to be the good teammate, offering advice here and encouragement there, but admits now those afternoons when he was in rehab and the team was practicing were harder for him to deal with than he acknowledged.
"It was devastating," he said. "Especially with what happened last year, going 13-0 and the Sugar Bowl, shows you never know what can happen. I am happy, blessed to be out there."
Rather than taking out his frustrations on his teammates or withdrawing, Talamaivao said he used the injury to motivate himself even more than he thought he could during rehab.
"When you get hurt, you tend to find yourself emotionally and spiritual-wise," he said. "I kept working hard on all the stuff I didn't do from the last year. I was just happy to be back."
The extra effort has turned Talamaivao into more of a leader, he said. He already had the talent -- that is why he played in seven games as a true freshman and won the starting job last season.
This year he plans to assert himself more as a member of a defensive line, which has two seniors in right end Koa Misi and nose tackle Kenape Eliapo, but also has some young, budding talent in sophomore left end Derrick Shelby, junior end Nai Fotu and freshman Dave Kruger, among others.
"The leadership is there," he said. "From last year to this year, we know the plays and we have younger guys coming up, but the strength is the leadership. We know what we have to do. We have our goals."
For Talamaivao and the rest of the defenders, the main goal is to be as good as they were in 2008, when they ranked 11th nationally in total defense.
Giving up 17 points to Utah State didn't exactly thrill the defenders, but Talamaivao believes Saturday's game will be better.
"We killed ourselves in communication," he said of the Utah State game. "That tends to happen in the first game, but other than that I was pleased. We don't want to make mistakes, we want to learn from them, get back to basics, play hard and run to the ball."
Of course, just running again is improvement enough for Talamaivao.
Briefly: The Utes won't have the services of backup linebacker Mo Neal for the majority of the 2009 season, if at all.
Neal, a 6-foot-2, 221-pound sophomore, has been suspended from games but allowed to practice since being involved in a bar fight during the summer.
Neal received a jury trial date this week for Nov. 4. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has stated Neal won't be allowed to play until the case is concluded and he has reviewed the outcome. The Utes have just four games remaining after Nov. 4.
Sophomore Lei Talamaivao is one of just a few underclassmen who start for the Utes. Here are the others:
|Tony Bergstrom||Sophomore||Right tackle|
|Derrick Shelby||Sophomore||Left end|
|Luke Matthews||Freshman||Punt returner|
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. TV » ESPNU