PROVO — When BYU senior fullback Manase Tonga came out Friday morning for his first practice, his teammates clapped and cheered.

"It was good to be back. It felt like coming home," said Tonga, who was ruled academically ineligible and was sidelined for the 2008 season. "It was a great feeling to see all the guys supporting me ... They're carrying on like they've been doing since the winter. With me jumping in late, they were very accepting of me. It was good to come back and to have them embrace me like this is perfect."

Tonga was watching film with teammates earlier Friday morning when he received a phone call from administrators, informing him that he had been allowed to re-enroll in school and rejoin the football team, putting an end to an experience he called "an uphill battle."

During 11-on-11 drills, Tonga lined up with the first-team offense caught two passes for 31 yards.

"I think I'm ready. But I think that just might be me speaking," said Tonga, who stayed in shape during his prolonged layoff by playing rugby. "I'm anxious to be on the field."

He added that physically, he's about "80-90 percent" right now. As far as getting the start in the season-opener against Oklahoma on Sept. 5 -- just two weeks from today, he said, "Hopefully. I've got to get back in shape first."

Tonga said he is "fairly comfortable" with the offense despite his time away from the program. "It's pretty much the same system that we've always run," he said. His expectations for this season, he said, are "to pick up where I left off, be a good leader and be a good, solid back. We'll see how it goes from there."

BYU quarterback Max Hall was thrilled to see Tonga back in uniform.

"It's a huge boost for us. He looked like he hadn't been out," he said. "He looked like he was there last year and knew exactly what was going on. We have a whole bunch of new stuff in (the offensive playbook) and he picked it up in five minutes. He's just an awesome guy to have in the backfield. Not only to protect me, but you saw him get out on a few routes and make a couple of great plays. It's really nice to have him back."

Due to the NCAA-mandated acclimatization process, Tonga must wait until next Wednesday to don full pads.

As for the factors that led to his becoming ineligible in the first place, Tonga said he "got lazy" in his schoolwork. And he paid a price for that laziness.

"It was hard (last year) not to be able to celebrate their successes with (teammates)," he said. "But I'll be able to make it up this year."

Coach Bronco Mendenhall was happy to have Tonga back, but he emphasized it's not for the same reasons that others are.

"I'm glad he's back in school. That's most important," said Mendenhall, who didn't learn that Tonga was cleared to come back until he saw Tonga walk out to practice Friday morning. "I'm anxious to help him in his studies, first and foremost. The football part will take care of itself."

Not only will Tonga help the Cougars with pass protection, but he will add maturity, experience and leadership to the team, Mendenhall said.

Asked if Tonga will start against the Sooners, Mendenhall said, "To me, it's not as relevant if he starts or not," explaining that he wants to see Tonga "do well in the classroom."

During his time away from BYU, Tonga took classes at Utah Valley University and spent considerable time with his wife and 1-year-old child.

What he missed most was "not having anything to do on Saturdays. I'd wake up on Saturday mornings and say, 'I guess I'll just turn on the TV,' " he said. " Also, just being around these guys. It's always fun to be around good guys, especially when you're doing something you love doing. I'll be ready. I'm excited. I can't wait. I'm just looking forward to playing football. It's what I've been waiting to do for the longest time."

BYU camp report

Day 12: The Cougars' Friday morning practice was highlighted by the return of fullback Manase Tonga, who was sidelined last year because he was academically ineligible. He caught two passes for 31 yards in his first practice back.

Injuries: Freshman offensive lineman Houston Reynolds suffered a torn ACL injury in his knee. Safety Andrew Rich was taken out of practice after suffering from tightness in his groin.

Next: The Cougars are scheduled to hold a scrimmage today at LaVell Edwards

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com