PROVO — The play hit him like a bolt of adrenaline.

Kearns High football coach Matt Rickards was dozing off on his couch watching the late-night Boise State-BYU game more than a week ago when he decided to go to his bedroom and turn on the game from a more comfortable position. He turned on the bedroom TV just in time to see Sione Finau racing through the Broncos defense for a touchdown.

“I started yelling and was instantly fully awake and excitedly stayed up to watch the rest of the game,” said Rickards, who couldn’t be more proud of the emergence of the BYU freshman running back — his former player.

That run by Finau came on an option pitch from quarterback Baylor Romney and covered 46 yards. It was the longest BYU run for a TD of the season and Finau’s first career touchdown. His 11 carries in that game were also a career high.

Finau, a somewhat undersized but very fast and energized freshman, proved he can be counted upon, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for BYU’s offense with graduate seniors Ty’Son Williams out for the season with a knee injury and Emmanuel Esukpa banged up.

Kearns’ Sione Finau gets tackled by Olympus High’s Dallin Bettilyon during a high school football game at Kearns High School in Kearns on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rickards says Finau helped create a championship culture in Kearns’ football program that continues today. A four-year starter who played receiver, corner, safety, running back and kick returner, Finau’s attitude, dedication and example set a baseline for the team. In Finau’s final season almost four years ago, Kearns had its most successful year since 1993.

Rickards coached Sione’s brothers David and Amone at Kearns and started him as a freshman. 

“We knew he would be a tremendous player. He was a dynamic player who did everything for us during his career. He helped changed the culture of our program.”

Nothing’s apparently changed at Kearns. 

Rickards took a phone call from Finau last Friday, and the young star said he’d be in the neighborhood since BYU had a bye weekend. Knowing Rickards’ teams practiced at 4 p.m, “he asked if he could borrow a key to our weight room and work out. I told him that would be fine. He came, worked out, then came out and asked for a ball and did some drills on the field and just hung out. That showed how dedicated he is, that he’d come to work out on a bye week after he’d had that kind of game against Boise State.”

Some may wonder what connection Sione has to PGA Tour star Tony Finau. Tony’s father, Gary Finau, a native Tongan, explained he is related to both Sione’s father and mother, who are his first cousins.

“My father and mother are older than Sione’s grandpa,” said Gary. “Sione’s father is named after my father who is Sione Finau.” In English, the Tongan name Sione means John.

Rickards said Finau’s greatest skill is his speed. At Kearns, Rickards tried to get Finau in open space in one-on-one situations or where he was isolated against a defender. He regularly beat the tackler, Rickards said.  

“I know this may not mean anything to some people because it was hand-timed, but one of our coaches clocked him in the high 4.4 seconds for the 40. He was the state champion in the high hurdles and is a legitimate track talent.”

From the beginning to the end of his four-year Kearns career, Finau displayed traits Rickards could exploit on and off the field. “He was unselfish, a team-first guy and a competitor. He wants to go against the best. He’s a little bit undersized and he knows that, but he doesn’t let it hold him back. He’s a funny guy who likes to joke around but also knows when to get serious.”

Rickard said a coach can preach all day about what mindset players have to have. “But if your best player isn’t going to do it, it isn’t happening. He bought into it and as a leader, he led in the effort and it changed the program.”

Finau obviously got serious in his last game, helping BYU to a school first — defeating two ranked teams at home in a season (USC, Boise State).  

That Finau is getting a closer look in BYU’s offense is an interesting development in the second half of the season for an offense that’s struggled to convert third downs and score TDs in the red zone.