SALT LAKE CITY — It didn't take long for Tauni (pronounced: downy) Vakapuna to establish himself. Since transferring to Utah, the former Dixie State running back scored a touchdown in the spring game and led the Utes in rushing in all three scrimmages during camp.
Vakapuna, whose older brother Fui played for BYU before moving on to the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, has made an already crowded Utah backfield even more full. He's cracked the depth chart, moving ahead of the injured Sausan Shakerin (concussion) as the primary backup to senior stars Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata.
"He's got a big role right now. We've got the two backs that everyone's been talking about — Matt and Eddie — but Tauni is next up with Shak's injury," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Tauni is a guy who is in the No. 3 position, and he actually has been very productive during fall camp. We would not hesitate to put him in the game, and we won't hesitate to put him in the game."
Vakapuna appreciates the praise. The junior insists, however, that he's still "got a ways to go" and is learning from Wide and Asiata, his former Hunter High School teammate. Vakapuna is taking note of the little things the duo does and the intangibles they bring to the table.
Vakapuna, though, has been a quick study — and few are surprised. He's an accomplished running back who rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns as a high school senior. His last season at Dixie State, he led the Red Storm in rushing (512 yards).
"Everyone knows the Vakapuna name and the family genes. So you were expecting something, and he definitely hasn't let anyone down," said Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford said. "He's done a great job, and he has been a good surprise to show up this fall.
Vakapuna received permission from the NCAA to transfer to Utah to help care for his ailing parents. His mother has renal kidney failure and requires dialysis three times per week, and his father has high blood pressure and needs to keep his stress levels down.
"I came to help out any way I could," Vakapuna said.
Family, he added, is always a big thing for him, and he considers it a blessing to be in position to assist — joining the Utes is like icing on the cake.
"I'm happy. Dixie was a good place, but to be here in this atmosphere is good," Vakapuna said. "It's definitely different than anything I've ever experienced."
The 24-year-old, who teamed with Asiata on Hunter's 14-0 state championship team in 2003, served an LDS Church mission to the Philippines between collegiate stints in St. George. He appeared in eight games as a freshman, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown over nine carries.
Vakapuna's return in 2008 was thwarted by an injury in the second game of the season. He rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns before being sidelined after just 21 carries.
His second attempt at a sophomore season proved to be much more productive. Vakapuna led Dixie State with 512 yards and six touchdowns. He carried the ball 138 times and appeared in 11 games while earning second-team All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference honors. Vakapuna also caught 20 passes for 206 yards and topped the Red Storm in all-purpose yardage.
The success has brought inevitable questions about his older brother, Fui. Tauni said they keep in touch, but he tries not to bug him too much — especially during camp.
Comparisons vary because Tauni is 5-foot-10 and 229 pounds, and Fui is a 6-foot, 260-pound fullback.
"He doesn't have the size that Fui had, but he's shifty, he's tough and he's a north-south guy," Whittingham said. "So there are some similarities."
Tauni, though, has made a name for himself with the Utes. Besides his toughness and work ethic, he's excelled on the field — running 92 yards for a touchdown in one of the scrimmages this fall.
So, despite the presence of all-conference candidates Wide and Asiata, the Utes have found room for Vakapuna to compete.
"You can never have too many great players, too many great running backs," Alford said. "All that does is just improve your team as a whole."
EXTRA POINTS: The Utes will hold their first weekly news conference Monday at noon. Scheduled participants include Whittingham, Asiata, quarterback Jordan Wynn and defensive end Christian Cox. ... Following Monday afternoon's practice, no media will be allowed to attend sessions Tuesday or Wednesday prior to Thursday night's opener against Pittsburgh. ... A formal ceremony is set to unveil two new signs — honoring Utah's two BCS-busting seasons — on the main scoreboard at Rice-Eccles Stadium prior to the Pitt game.
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