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Utah football: Junior college transfer Kavika Luafatasaga works hard to repay coaches for taking a chance on him

SALT LAKE CITY – Kavika Luafatasaga is enjoying every difficult second of the football career he almost threw away.

“I feel like they want me to be that guy, to show up and make plays,” said the 6-foot-4 linebacker who’s become a critical contributor to Utah’s renowned defense in just three months on campus. “They believe in me; they trust me. They know it takes time. I’ve been making some progress, trying to do my part, just watching film, (continue) leaning and getting in shape.”

The junior college transfer has 22 tackles, one for loss, through nine games, including six starts. He acknowledges the accomplishment, but adds that he still has “a lot of work to do” – especially because his path to Utah was anything but smooth.

In fact, if he’d made better decisions in high school, he may not even be wearing a Utah uniform this fall. The soft-spoken, exceedingly polite 21-year-old linebacker dropped out of high school after playing football and basketball his senior year.

“When I registered for my senior year, they told me that I wasn’t going to walk,” he said of his Oahu high school. “They said I could still come to school and play sports, but maybe drop out and get my GED.”

So that’s what he did.

And by doing so, he thought any dreams of playing collegiate football were dead.

“Once I dropped out, I thought that was it,” he said. “I got my GED and just tried to find a job, have a normal life.”

He was living with his pastor, who, unlike Laufatasaga, still saw opportunities for him to pursue both the sport he loved and the education he needed.

“He helped get me into a high school camp, and there were a lot of D1 and D2 coaches,” he said. “That’s were my opportunity came. When it came, I used it to my advantage. Every rep I had, I gave it 100 percent.”

His effort in that camp impressed the coaches at Arizona Western. They asked for a highlight video, which he didn’t have. They asked for video of him running drills or working out; he never provided one.

“They just took a chance,” he said, a shy smile spreading across his face. “When I got there, I wanted to show them why they made the right choice to take a chance.”

He didn’t start when he got to the junior college, but, as often happens in football, an injury thrust him onto the field before he was ready. He learned quick and played hard, in large part, he said, to repay coaches for having faith in him. His sophomore season, he led the team with 93 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss and four sacks. He also forced two fumbles, had an interception and blocked a kick in 2015. His play earned him four stars from Scout.com and garnered interest from top programs, including Utah and Ole Miss.

He committed to Ole Miss, but he said his visit there left him yearning for a more family-oriented environment.

“When I came here, that’s what I experienced,” he said. Luafatasaga signed with Utah instead of Ole Miss, but even that almost didn’t materialize. He spent the summer finishing a math class that would allow him to be eligible for the Utes.

“I was so out of shape, coming in here,” he said. “I wanted to come in and show what the hype was about, but I didn’t work out. I put my whole effort into trying to finish math.”

Despite having an impact for the Utes, he said he hasn’t reached his potential.

“I feel like I have to keep getting better,” he said. “I’m not even close to where I’m going to be. I want to be part of something big on the D. I want to be one of the guys to lead the defense. That’s who I want to be. I have a lot of work to do. Just work on everything.”

Adjusting to life as a collegiate athlete is also demanding, he acknowledges, but trying to find a leadership role in a defense like Utah’s is an especially tall order.

“(The defense) is unselfish,” he said. “We’re really closely bonded. …We just trust each other.”

If Luafatasaga’s journey to Utah has taught him anything, it’s taught him patience.

“(The road to Utah) was discouraging in the beginning,” he said. “It was nobody’s fault, just me, just a mental thing. I’m just trying to stay humble, stay focused, and I just tell myself, ‘Just show up for these guys because they took a chance on me.’”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports