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Breaking through: BYU defensive end Uriah Leiataua showing well after enduring a bevy of challenges

BYU defensive end arrived at BYU amid great hype — hype he is starting to live up to now that he’s healthy.

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BYU defensive end Uriah Leiataua is now living up to the hype that surrounded him when he committed to BYU five years ago.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — BYU defensive end Uriah Leiataua signed with the Cougar program with a lot of fanfare and late-minute drama clear back in 2014, but has since faded from the limelight. But recent returns and a standout performance versus Toledo indicates the embattled junior could be on his way to realizing at least some of his recruiting hype.

Leiataua proved one of the few bright spots for the Cougar defense in that 28-21 defeat. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound Compton, California, native applied solid pressure throughout the game and accounted for the Cougars’ lone sack in what was an otherwise disappointing defensive effort.

It’s the type of play most anticipated when Leiataua signed in 2014, although getting there has been a struggle.

“For anyone starting their careers, don’t sleep on injuries. I learned it the hard way, and yeah, it’s been very tough,” Leiataua said. “You need to take care of yourself the best you can no matter what and no matter what your injury history has been. So yeah, my time here has been a challenge, no doubt, but I still know I made the right decision to come here.”

Leiataua, who had verbally committed to Stanford, ultimately signed with BYU after taking an official recruiting trip to Provo the weekend before letter of intent day in 2014.

“What I found at BYU was a lot of players like me,” Leiatau said. “Players I could relate to and I just felt totally comfortable with everything, so I decided to switch my commitment and sign with BYU.”

Instead of enrolling immediately at BYU in 2014, Leiataua opted to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with his call to Apia, Samoa, proving an unexpected yet very welcome one.

“Both my parents are Samoan, and I visited there when I was really young, but man, being able to serve there was an incredible blessing,” Leiataua said. “I learned so much and became a much better person through the experience. I was sort of a knucklehead before leaving, but the experience just made me realize things and really benefitted me in that way.”

Leiataua returned just prior to the 2016 season and proved a standout, playing on the scout team that year before incurring the first of an unfortunate string of injuries.

“It really has been a bit of everything, it seems,” Leiataua said. “The big one has been my back, but it’s also been nerve problems, a broken wrist — just one on top of the other — and I just haven’t been able to catch a break.”

Throughout the injuries Leiataua has managed to play, logging limited reps during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, although his contributions didn’t meet his own expectations, not to mention the expectations surrounding a top athlete with multiple Pac-12 offers.

“I’m happy I was able to play through some of it, even though I was never totally healthy the last two years,” Leiataua said. “But now I feel as healthy as I have for a while and feel I’m able to play and do things out there to really help the team.”

Much of his resurgence this season has to do with the directive of his father, Siu Leiataua.

“It’s just about manning up. My dad always tells me to just ‘man up’ and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.” — Uriah Leiataua

“It’s just about manning up. My dad always tells me to just ‘man up’ and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Leiataua said. “I was never hurt playing in high school, but man, they’ve come fast and often since being at BYU. But my dad is just dope. He’s been a huge help to me in getting me through it all.”

Getting through the injuries has involved some changes in technique and acclimating to some of the debilitating effects he still has due to injury.

“The biggest thing is not really being able to use my legs like I used to,” he said. “So it’s changed my focus to my hands and I feel that’s my strength. I have really good hands and that’s what helps with my pass rush. I’m more of a finesse player, which is how I love to play now.”

The goal now is to remain healthy and on the field playing.

“That Toledo game was my best game and I’m hoping to just build off of that,” he said. “Overall I’ve had to go through a lot of things I didn’t anticipate, but it’s made me stronger.”

Leiataua has also thrived in the social and education opportunities at BYU, and is set to enter BYU’s business program.

“I knew that if I was giving up Stanford that I’d have to make up for it and getting into the business program I think does just that,” Leiataua said. “And then just being here at BYU has been great. It’s been a challenge, I’m not going to lie, but I’ve loved having that challenge and know I’m a better person because of all of it.”