For Boise State nose tackle Sonatane Lui, the decision to go on a two-year church mission after high school was an easy one.
“I kind of put it in my head that I was going to go and stuck with my decision,” Lui said.
The choice was not as simple for safety Kekoa Nawahine, as some around him questioned whether he would be able to succeed at the FBS level after two years away from football.
While the future Boise State teammates arrived at their decisions differently, they ultimately took the same leap of faith in regards to their football careers.
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After serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles (Lui) and Calgary (Nawahine), both sophomores are now starters on the Broncos’ defense and are two of five returned missionaries on this year’s roster.
Junior defensive end Durrant Miles (Bolivia) and true freshman linebackers Riley Whimpey (Kenosha, Wis.) and Clay Bowler (Boise) also went on Mormon missions.
On Friday, the Broncos line up opposite a BYU squad that has more returned missionaries than any other FBS program with 73, according to the Deseret News. Boise State’s five are fourth-most.
Kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. on ESPN at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah.
With 65 percent of its roster made up of returned missionaries, BYU’s success often hinges on the ability of those players to quickly re-acclimate to the game of football.
“If you haven’t served a mission, it is hard explaining getting back into it,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.
It’s a situation quite familiar to the Broncos’ quintet.
Lui and Miles returned from their missions having lost a significant amount of weight. Depending on their assignment, most missionaries are allowed to work out for a half hour each morning, but finding a weight room isn’t always easy.
Miles, who now checks in at 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds, came home weighing just 205.
His first workouts with the Broncos were as trying physically as they were mentally.
“I remember my first day of fall camp was really an eye-opener,” Miles said. “I was in a drill with (defensive coordinator/linebackers) coach (Andy) Avalos on a one-man sled, and I just kept falling right on my face.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m ever going to survive.’ ”
But as soon as the self-doubt started, Miles fell back on the lessons he learned on his mission.
“You learn a lot about accountability. You learn a lot about self-improvement and dedication as well,” Miles said. “Being on your own in a foreign country, it’s just something you have to learn. You pick it up or else you kind of get left behind.”
Because a lot can change in two years — Nawahine and Miles both committed to former coach Chris Petersen — coaches never know what to expect when players show up on campus for the first time.
“There’s a lot of things that you’ve got to gauge, one being physically, what have they done in the last two years that’s going to allow them to get themselves ready?” Avalos said. “Usually it’s like a two-month, maybe three-month span before it’s time to get rolling.
“And obviously there’s the mental part of things. We’ve been pretty lucky. They’ve all wanted to play. They sat out of football for a few years, and they’re ready to roll when they get back. We try to find ways to get them in there and get them started.”
Nawahine, a graduate of Rocky Mountain High in Meridian, returned to the Broncos in 2016 and by the end of the season had earned a starting spot against Baylor in the Cactus Bowl. This season, he’s the Broncos’ fourth-leading tackler with 23 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Lui, of Sandy, Utah, played in 12 games as a true freshman last season. Miles, of South Jordan, Utah, appeared in 11 games as a true freshman in 2015 and started six games as a sophomore last year. And Whimpey, of San Clemente, Calif., has appeared in all four games as a true freshman this fall. Bowler, a walk-on, is expected to redshirt.
“When you decide to go on a mission, there’s a purpose behind it, which I think is really important. They have that purpose, so they’re developing that while they’re on their mission,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... When they show up back here, I think they’re extremely excited to be back and back in the game. ... They’re eager. They’re ready, and I think they have a little bit of confidence that a guy — they’re two years older, basically — just doesn’t have right when he shows up.”
For Nawahine, his mission also led to a clearer sense of purpose — both on and off the field.
“I try to focus mainly on just having a grateful attitude and recognizing the opportunity that I have in being here. So many people don’t get to have these types of experiences,” Nawahine said. “Just being present in the moment and giving my all when I am here, giving my all to it and doing more than is expected of me and more than those would around me.”
Boise State at BYU
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Lavell Edwards Stadium (63,470, grass), Provo, Utah
TV: ESPN (Adam Amin, Dusty Dvoracek, Molly McGrath)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 2-2 (lost to Virginia 42-23); BYU 1-4 (lost to Utah State 40-24)
Series: Boise State leads 5-2 (beat Cougars 28-27 in Boise in 2016)
Vegas line: Boise State by 7
Kickoff weather: Low 50s, clear