PROVO — If someone had told BYU’s Keanu Saleapaga in the fall of 2015 while he was playing his senior season of football at La Mirada High School just south of Los Angeles that he would be playing against his beloved USC Trojans in 2019, rather than for them, he would not have believed it.

 The 6-foot-6, 310-pound redshirt sophomore from Lakewood, California, also would not have predicted he would be playing on the offensive side of the ball, either, but that’s just another unexpected twist his life has taken the past four years.

 “Kinda crazy, how it has worked out,” BYU’s starting right tackle said Wednesday as the Cougars continued preparations for Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. contest with No. 24 USC at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “I am just happy to be here, happy to be a Cougar.”

“Even though I was once committed to USC and grew up a big fan (of USC), this is just another game for me. I am just blessed to be out here playing the game that I love. Not a lot of people in my family have had the opportunity to go to college and play the game at this level. I am going to take this opponent like any other opponent and play as hard as possible.” — BYU offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga

 That’s because Saleapaga was almost a Trojan.

 He committed to then-USC coach Steve Sarkisian — the former BYU QB — in the summer of 2015, and planned to sign with the Trojans in February of 2016. However, Sarkisian was fired by USC on Oct. 12, 2015, a day after he was asked to take a leave of absence due to erratic behavior while allegedly under the influence of alcohol and painkillers.

 But when Sarkisian was replaced by current coach Clay Helton, the Trojans didn’t maintain contact with Saleapaga and the No. 9-rated defensive end in California decided to re-open his recruitment.

 “I was committed to coach Sarkisian, but then after his whole thing, he had to leave, so I thought it would be best for me to take some of my other visits, including BYU, and see what else was out there,” Saleapaga said.

 Saleapaga drew interest from Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia, Syracuse, Kansas, Arizona State and others and didn’t particularly enjoy his visit to BYU. But his parents pushed him to sign with coach Kalani Sitake, even though they are not members of the faith that owns and operates BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 “Best decision I’ve ever made,” he said.

 Saleapaga signed with BYU in February 2016, but because of some issues with the NCAA clearinghouse, he couldn’t enroll until 2017. He redshirted and played defense on the scout team in 2017, then entered preseason training camp in 2018 as a defensive end.

 New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Ryan Pugh sized Saleapaga up and asked him to move over to offensive line in fall camp, and soon the giant with the quick feet was pushing for playing time.

BYU offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga spends a few moments with his mom and dad at the BYU spring game in 2018. After playing in just one game the past two seasons and having five surgeries on his arms and shoulders, Saleapaga is back for his final season in Provo in 2022.
BYU offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga spends a few moments with his dad and mom at the BYU spring game. | Twitter photo via Mike Moschetti

 His first start came against Wisconsin in that 24-21 BYU win a year ago, and he’s been a regular on the offensive line ever since.

“Even though I was once committed to USC and grew up a big fan (of USC), this is just another game for me,” he said. “I am just blessed to be out here playing the game that I love. Not a lot of people in my family have had the opportunity to go to college and play the game at this level. I am going to take this opponent like any other opponent and play as hard as possible.”

Saleapaga and redshirt freshman Harris LaChance battled throughout camp for the starting right tackle spot, with Saleapaga getting the nod for the Utah and Tennessee games.

“We are still competing, and we still switch off a lot, me and Harris,” Saleapaga said. “We both look to get some playing time the rest of the season.”