The Aggies received some bad news after their first game of the 2019 college football campaign when they found out that all-Mountain West defensive tackle Fua Leilua had suffered a season-ending injury.
Defensive tackle was supposed to be one of Utah State’s strongest positions this year, and losing the Oklahoma State transfer was a big setback. Fortunately for the Aggies, seniors Christopher ’Unga and Devon Anderson have done an outstanding of softening the blow.
The presence and leadership of ’Unga, who like Leilua was an honorable mention all-conference section last year, was especially important. No. 96 has suffered his fair share of injuries during his four-plus years in Cache Valley, but his durability and toughness this season has been remarkable.
“It’s been a huge deal for us because if Chris goes down, then we have Devon and young guys after that,” USU graduate assistant coach Al Lapuaho said. “He has a lot of experience under his belt. Having him has meant the world because he’s had some nicks and (injuries), but in his mind he knows he can’t be down, really, because if he goes down we don’t have that much depth this year (at defensive tackle). ... He doesn’t complain even when he is injured. He’s a tough, tough, tough kid. He represents Utah State football well.”
Injuries limited ’Unga to seven games in 2016 and nine in 2017, and the injury bug reared its head once again prior to fall camp of this year. The native of Rochester, California, missed a sizable portion of fall camp while recuperating, but he has appeared in all 10 games during the season and has been in the starting lineup seven times.
“I’m definitely counting my blessings,” ’Unga said. “It feels pretty good to go out every game feeling at pretty much my best at the moment with my boys. And it’s been hard for me the past couple of years because I miss games here and there, but I’ve been lucky enough this season. We’ve still got two more (regular season) games and I haven’t missed one yet, so I’m counting on that (to continue).”
‘Unga has been a workhorse for the Aggies this season as he has consistently played 40-50 reps, “which is high for a defensive tackle,” Lapuaho asserted. Lapuaho referred to his senior as “the alpha male of our defensive line,” even though he’s not really an outspoken guy.
“He’s quiet, but he’s a vocal leader when he needs to be,” Lapuaho said. “But the biggest thing I love about working with him is that he leads by example. I don’t ever have to worry about him on and off the field. He’s just a solid player and person that you wish everybody was like.”
‘Unga is focused on finishing his final season at USU on a high note, and the results can be seen. The 6-foot-1, 295-pounder has averaged five tackles an outing over the Aggies’ last four games, and 10 of his tackles during that timepsan have been of the solo variety.
The senior has already recorded 34 tackles, which is a new single-season record for him. ’Unga, who had a sack against Wake Forest and batted down a pass against San Diego State, ranks third among all Aggie defensive linemen in tackles.
“He surprisingly has a great pass rush,” Lapuaho said. “You saw that sack against Wake Forest and QB hurry from last week. ... He just does it all. He’s very compact, but he’s stout in the middle. He can pass rush and he works hard. It’s hard not to compliment the guy and there’s nothing bad I could ever say about him.”
Even without Leilua, defensive tackle has been one of USU’s most consistent positions this season. However, the Aggies did struggle a bit in the defensive trenches in back-to-back loses to Air Force and BYU. ’Unga, Anderson and company have worked hard to rectify that, and the defensive line play was rock solid in back-to-back wins over Fresno State and Wyoming. In fact, USU head coach Gary Andersen said his team’s defensive line put together its best performance of the season last weekend against the Cowboys.
“Yeah, (BYU) was a tough loss and the coaches brought it to the table and told us that we need to play better, so we took it upon ourselves to do just that,” ’Unga said. “So, we got in the (film) room, we got on the field and tried to work just a little bit better each and every day, and see where that will get us. And these past two weeks, we’ve played really well up front and we’re hoping to continue that.”
A strong effort by their defensive tackles could pay huge dividends for the Aggies this Saturday in their showdown at home against No. 20 Boise State. USU must beat BSU to stay alive in the race for the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title.
‘Unga was redshirting his freshman year the last time the Aggies outpointed the Broncos. USU jumped all over BSU in the first half and coasted to a 52-26 victory on Oct. 16, 2015, at Maverik Stadium.
“(I remember) rushing the field with all the fans and the joy that we had,” said ’Unga, who has played in 39 games and made 27 starts as an Aggie. “We had, what seven, eight (forced) turnovers that game, and we made them all count. And with everybody rushing the field, it was probably one of the best moments I’ve had in Maverik Stadium.”
‘Unga has several other fond memories of his time in Logan. For starters, this is where he met his wife, Jaynee, who is a standout athlete on USU’s rugby club team. The couple first met a little more than two years ago and were married this past July.
‘Unga chuckled when asked how he first came in contact with the former Jaynee Taufoou.
“(USU assistant coach) Frank Maile, his niece was playing for one of the powder puff teams, the intramural teams, and he made me go coach the team, and (Jaynee) was on it,” ’Unga said.
‘Unga also grew up playing rugby and gushed when talking about how talented his wife is. He said she was selected as the MVP of her team.
“She doesn’t like it when I say that, but, you know, I’m proud of her,” said ’Unga, who likes to binge watch movies with his wife in his free time.
Another one of ’Unga’s most cherished memories attending Utah State is the time he spent with his older brother, Uani, who was the team’s linebackers coach during its memorable 2018 campaign.
“I loved it,” ’Unga said. “He coached the linebackers, so he didn’t really step into the D-line coach’s job. It was Frank Maile last year, so (my brother) kind of let me roam free. ... But off the field, I loved being around him and his family, hanging out with them and stuff, so it was nice for me.”
Uani ’Unga was a standout football player at Oregon State and BYU, and spent three seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants. Christopher ’Unga is the youngest of seven children, and all five of his older brothers played college football. Another one of his brothers, Joe, also made it to the NFL.
With that many elite athletes in his immediate family, there’s no question Christopher ’Unga was battle-tested as a youngster.
“It was good,” said ’Unga, who is on track to graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice. “You know, you’ve got that tough, brotherly love, but it came from my father. He raised us to be tough and everything we did wrong, it came with a punishment. ... And growing up with older brothers helped me a lot to kind of make me who I am today. I like to think that I’m tough and I thank them for that.”
The former Rancho Cucamonga High School star — ’Unga was named the Inland Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior after recording 50 tackles and 4.0 sacks, and he contributed with 66 tackles and 8.0 sacks as a junior — was set to follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother, Paul, at Arizona State. In fact, ’Unga originally verbally committed to the Sun Devils.
“But the poly(nesian) culture really lured me in here (at USU) and I’ve loved it,” said Unga, who was also heavily recruited by Nevada and San Jose State. “I’ve never regretted my choice coming here and it’s been the best.”
No. 96 aspires to play in the NFL, “so I’m going to shoot for that after this season, but my plan B is to become a police officer, so whether that’s patrolling the streets or working in corrections, it’s something I want to get into.”