For nearly three years, Sonatane Lui was away from football, and he wasn’t allowed to lift weights.
As an interior defensive lineman, that’s a tough order.
So when Lui first stepped into a meeting at Boise State 14 months ago, after a church mission in Los Angeles, where his main source of physical activity was running, the 6-foot-1 Utah native weighed about 260 pounds.
“It humbled me just walking into the room,” Lui said.
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Undersized, not in football shape and entering the program as a walk-on, it would be understandable if it took some time for Lui to get comfortable. He said he “came in with no technique” and entrusted defensive coordinator Andy Avalos and defensive line coach Steve Caldwell to help him get it back.
Then, there was his first spring practice.
“In high school, you can be the biggest rock star, but you come to college and you’re nothing,” Lui said. “It was a good reality check for me ... to know you’re not the biggest, baddest guy anymore.”
Lui proved to be a quick learner, and a quick gainer. He got up to about 285 pounds by the time September rolled around, and in part because of thin depth at his position, Lui played immediately as a true freshman. He was put on scholarship this semester.
“We felt like he could be a guy that could contribute, if we could get him in shape, get him back from his mission and all that, get him going. Here’s a big ol’ guy that is physical ... and obviously his personality, he works really hard, that’s just in his nature,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Lui played in 12 games last season, making 10 tackles and sharing a sack with linebacker Tanner Vallejo in his first game, Sept. 3 at Louisiana. A year later, after that first spring in which he said “it was kind of like a deer in the headlights,” Lui (at 302 pounds) is competing for a starting spot at nose tackle with sophomore Emmanuel Fesili.
“Starting’s great, but I just want to contribute to the team winning,” Lui said. “If I was fourth string, started on special teams, I’m just happy to be here and get to play on the team. There’s no place like the blue.”
When he lines up in practice on the Albertsons Stadium turf, Lui is there in part because of the guy lining up next to him. An honorable-mention all-state pick as a senior at Alta High in 2012, Lui lined up against Bingham High that fall. Boise State junior defensive end Durrant Miles was on the other side.
“I guess coach Avalos liked what he saw,” Lui said.
Sure enough, Avalos kept an eye on Lui, and when he came off his mission, gave him the walk-on opportunity. Lui said he and Miles attend church together sometimes.
“We have a special bond,” Lui said.
With Lui and Fesili checking in at around 300 pounds each, it has helped give the Broncos confidence to move last season’s 262-pound starting nose tackle, David Moa, to defensive tackle.
“(Lui) is bigger, he’s stronger, he’s able to do some more things for us and really understand what we’re trying to accomplish at that position,” Harsin said. “Through these practices, what we do in the summer and into fall camp, he’s a guy that can really be, in our opinion, a great player at that nose position.”
Lui also has some musical skills, too. The mother of Boise State quarterback Rathen Ricedorff’s wife, Kizzy, posted a video of him singing while some players visited Kizzy in the hospital Monday.