‘Just a football player’: BYU commit Pokaiaua Haunga proving athlete label with Timpview

Timpview’s Pokaiaua Haunga runs behind a blocker against Lone Peak during the Knights’ 44-31 win over Timpview, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 in Highland. Haunga, a BYU commit, is the No. 11-rated recruit in Utah by 247Sports in the Class of 2023. (Sean Walker, KSL.com)

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PROVO — Given the choice to define a player’s role on the team, first-year Timpview head coach Donny Atuaia admits he’s stumped.

Is Pokaiaua Haunga a wide receiver or a defensive back? Cornerback or safety, maybe a flash linebacker? Can he play running back or in the slot?

The answer, of course, for the BYU commit listed at 6-feet in the game program is: Yes. All of the above.

“We have him listed as one of the three that is just ‘athlete,’ because we know he is going to be all over the field,” Atuaia said after the first game of his Polynesian Bowl All-Star. “We kind of felt that it was time to hold him back after he got a little dinged. And that’s just being an athlete; we need to figure out how to manage him better.

“He’s a lethal weapon for us. It’s a thing as coaches that we have to figure out (how to use him). I think we kind of overdid it in the first half, but we’ll hopefully be better as coaches.”

Given the “athlete” label early in his recruiting process — Haunga has been looked at as a possible defensive back, running back and wide receiver for the Cougars, with his primary recruiter being defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki — the athlete hasn’t run from it.

Rather, it’s what drives him to get better every day. He wants to play receiver at the next level; but if there’s another position where he can be more valuable, he’s all-in, too.

“I never really thought about the word ‘athlete.’ I’m just a football player,” said Haunga, whose fourth-ranked Thunderbirds open Week 3 of the season Friday at Crimson Cliffs. “I prefer that I be an offensive player. But this year, we want to do anything we can to win, and that’s the best I can do to help the team.”

Haunga averaged a team-high 101.8 yards per game last year for the Thunderbirds en route to the 5A state semifinals. He was the team’s leading receiver under then-senior quarterback Liu Aumavae, who signed with San Diego State over offers from BYU and Central Michigan.

With two quarterbacks in junior Quezon Villa and freshman Helaman Casuga now calling the shots, Haunga is out to surpass his 1,200-yard season this year. But he also wants to do more, as any two-way athlete making plays on both offense and defense will say.

In the first game of his senior season against defending 6A champion Lone Peak, Haunga had a touchdown, an interception and a sack — all before halftime — as the Thunderbirds rolled to a 31-10 win over the Knights. In two games, which also includes a 43-14 win over Herriman, Haunga has been a force for his team.

“The only reason I do what I do is because my teammates do their jobs, too,” Haunga said. “That allows me to make a play.

“It’s all about trust. I did a little on my own, like with the sack. But I knew what Lone Peak was going to do, same with the interception.”

Playing with an offense that also includes BYU targets Spencer Fano and Tei Nacua, as well as on defense with fellow BYU recruit Siale Esera, Haunga is out to prove he can do a little bit of everything. Truthfully, he kind of had to step up on defense, too, Atuaia admits.

Timpview's Pokai Haunga (88) and Puna Alatini (48) tease Vave Adolpho (6) after he breaks up a pass against Salem Hills during a 5A football state semifinal game at Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.
Timpview’s Pokai Haunga (88) and Puna Alatini (48) tease Vave Adolpho (6) after he breaks up a pass against Salem Hills during a 5A football state semifinal game at Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. (Photo: Yukai Peng, Deseret News)

The Thunderbirds had a key linebacker from last year’s team in Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio, a former BYU recruit who returned home to Hawaii shortly after committing to Nevada.

Ambrosioh averaged 7.8 tackles per game across 12 games in 2021 for 94 total stops, including 21 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Haunga isn’t necessarily the same kind of pass-rushing demon his former teammate was, but he is capable of occasionally going off script and making a big play (for which he later apologized to his coaches after a key sack in the first half against Lone Peak).

Again, it goes back to his teammates: If Haunga feels like the defense has things covered, he’s more than capable of using his athleticism to make a big play.

“We have a new defense this year, and it’s very fun,” said Huanga, who has played linebacker and safety in Timpview’s defense. “Everyone has that connection; we’re a lot closer and we’re a lot more disciplined.

“Mostly, all of us know what it is to lose. and we want to win. Our secondary is lock down, linebackers are fast moving side-to-side, and our D-line is smart and disciplined.”

If nothing else, it’ll provide good learning moments for Haunga as he prepares for that next level. The senior committed to BYU last January, almost immediately after he received an offer — it took him “about 10 minutes” to decide on a commitment, he jokes. The three-star prospect by 247Sports, who ranks No. 7 in the state of Utah, has stayed committed despite interest from Dartmouth, Nevada, Washington State and Utah State.

But Haunga knows he has a place at BYU, even if the spot on the field is as much TBD as ATH.

“They’re the ones that have shown the most love,” he said.

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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