WEST VALLEY CITY — Though he's been tearing it up for a couple of seasons now, Hunter's Muka Atiga might be one of the best-kept secrets ever at the school that's rightfully earned the nickname "Tailback High."
Playing on a three-win team, which started 0-5, and in the same era as stud running backs like Alta's Sausan Shakerin and Bingham's Sam Langi, the spotlight hasn't exactly been beaming down on the latest Wolverine standout.
And that's too bad, really. Atiga might go down as the most prolific rusher the school has ever seen.
"He's been excellent. I'd take one of him every year," said Hunter coach Wes Wilcken. "He's definitely earned the position he's got."
Despite missing a game and running with a banged-up knee, the Hunter senior has nearly rushed for 1,500 yards heading into this Friday's first-round 5A playoff game against Jordan. Atiga needs just under 100 yards in the postseason to surpass the University of Utah's Matt Asiata as the school's all-time leading rusher.
Asiata, an All-American at Snow College and the Ute starter this year before an injury, piled up 3,037 yards in his Hunter career. With 1,488 yards so far in 2007, Atiga now has rushed for 2,943 yards over the past three years.
The way he's been running his senior season, Atiga might have that school record wrapped up by halftime Friday. He racked up a whopping 290 yards in a win over Kearns — a single-game school record — and posted 200-plus games against Riverton, West Jordan and Spanish Fork. In the nine games he's played, Atiga has both embarrassed would-be tacklers and impressed opposing coaches.
"This No. 7 (Atiga) is the best tailback in the state I've seen," said Riverton coach Mike Miller after last week's 23-0 loss to Hunter in which Atiga had 208 yards rushing.
Atiga was headed for another 200 game but was injured early in the third quarter against Copper Hills after rushing for 135 yards. He played with the tweaked knee the next week against the Jaguars, but then sat out the Bingham contest to heal up a bit. He felt better against Riverton and should be back to full speed against Jordan. Because of some hampering injuries this season, Atiga was relieved of his free safety duties so he could focus on offense and stay as healthy as possible.
Which is OK for him — and bad news for opponents.
"Offense," he said with a smile, "is what I live for."
Wilcken credits Atiga's vision, patience and knowledge for his success on the field. His ability to cut quickly and make defenders look like they're doing bullfighter "ole" moves is reminiscent of Hunter's only Mr. Football, David Fiefia.
"He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows when to cut back and when not to," Wilcken said. "He knows where everybody's at. His assessment and awareness of people on the field is very excellent."
Even with his cat-like zig-zagging skills and good open-field speed, Atiga credits his success to his beefy buddies up front. Linemen Harold Moleni, Ferron Fitisemanu, Jake Fifita, Tusi Aiono, George Angilau and Sini Tauauvea have jelled as the season progressed, helping him bust loose for a lot of big gains.
"I gotta remember those guys. I love 'em," Atiga said of his linemen. "I can't do it without them. After every touchdown, I've got to thank them."
For their TD blocking, Atiga has thanked them 11 times this season. He also has a touchdown pass, which came on a fourth-and-long situation in the tight Kearns win.
Atiga's family moved to Utah from Hawaii when he was 10 years old. A few years later, he started dreaming of starring in the Wolverines' backfield when he saw Asiata and Tauni Vakapuna leading Hunter to its first state championship in 2003. He was 13 at the time, but watching those guys excel made a lasting impression on the youngster.
"It made me want to be that — to shoot for that goal of what they were doing for Hunter football," he said.
Atiga's knowledge of Hunter's running back legacy hits close to home. His sister, Tangi, married Asiata, who followed in the footsteps of school greats such as Tefua Bloomfield (BYU), David Fiefia (USU), Joe Lomu (Snow), Soni Sotele (Snow) and Vakapuna.
His size — he's about 6-0, 180 — might keep him from getting serious scholarship looks from bigger Division I schools, but Atiga has been attracting interest from programs such as Utah State and Weber State. Asiata hopes he'll join him at the U. Wilcken said that might be possible if Atiga, a 3.7 student, walks on and pursues academic and other scholarships. But going on an LDS mission and pursuing a college education, he said, is his top priority.
"My parents push for school work more than football," he said. "So I like to make them proud."