- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 2, 2017

PROVO, Utah (AP) - Sione Takitaki swears he’s matured in the last year.

The BYU defensive lineman hasn’t played in a game since October 2015 due to off-field issues, but the junior is back with the Cougars and eager to make up for lost time. He married his wife Alyssa in June 2016 and has a new appreciation for the game.

“Going through that time was kind of rough,” Takitaki said. “I always kept my spirit up. I always knew this was just another bump in the road. I was always going to find a way. Coming in as a freshman to now, it’s night and day. You take a lot of stuff for granted.”

Then-coach Bronco Mendenhall suspended Takitaki on Oct. 22, 2015, for a violation of team rules after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft as part of a plea deal stemming from an incident in which he was accused of stealing athletic wear from the women’s soccer and track teams. Then he was held out all of 2016, taking a redshirt.

Takitaki declines to get into the details, but credits his wife, coach Kalani Sitake and his BYU teammates for supporting him and keeping him focused on his eventual return.

“Coach Sitake, I love that guy, I’ll run through a wall for that guy any day,” Takitaki said. “It was never like I left. I was always around (the guys). And they were always there for me.

“My wife is everything to me. That lady has been here for me. … It changed me in so many ways. Can’t be a little kid any more. Have to be able to see the future and say I want to be in a better place. I’ve got to provide for my future family. Not just worried about yourself.”

Now that things are in order off the field, Takitaki has been running wild on it through the first fall practices. The combination of speed and strength in his 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame has given offensive linemen fits.

He had 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in six 2015 games before leaving the team.

“He hasn’t lost a step, if anything, he’s gained one,” senior linebacker Fred Warner said. “He’s destroying every tackle that he goes against right now. He’s always in the backfield. What’s unique about him is he just has that ‘it’ factor as a rusher. He’s fast. He has the quick twitch to him. Physical. And he just has a high motor.”

Teammates raved about the energy he’s brought to the field and said it has been contagious. That extra juice is much appreciated as teams fight through a month of fall camp in August temperatures in the mid-90s.

Takitaki finds himself in the offensive backfield plenty, but the Cougars want more sacks as a group and they believe his presence will command more individual attention that opens up opportunities for blitz schemes and the linebackers behind him.

“Good pass rusher, that’s a given,” Sitake said. “He’s really smart. He understands the game and loves it. I think the absence has made it even stronger. … Once he realizes how strong he is and utilizes all his skill, he’ll be a better player.”

That physicality is one of the things Takitaki is focused on, instead of just using his speed. Coaches are asking him to take on blocks more and to use his hands better.

The goals are simple, yet aggressive - double-digit sacks and tackles for loss in 2017.

“He’s a beast,” quarterback Tanner Mangum said. “He’s excited to be back, so he’s kind of taken full advantage of this opportunity to play. You watch the film and every single play he’s in there causing trouble, wreaking havoc.

“He’s got a really quick first step and makes it tough on our O-line. It’s exciting to have a playmaker like that who’s excited, who’s got that motor.”

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