Kavika Fonua’s BYU teammates call him ‘gramps’ because he’s 24, but he’s their starting middle linebacker

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Brigham Young running back Kavika Fonua makes a catch for the Cougars, as Utah Utes linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga defends in football action BYU vs Utah, at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo on September 9, 2017.

Provo • Teammates like to call BYU junior Kavika Fonua “gramps,” or “old man,” or the “elder statesman” when they see him around campus or in the locker room.

His self-described term is “survivor,” because that’s what the former Syracuse High standout has been at BYU, overcoming several major injuries to remain a contributor in the program.

“Hey, I’m only 24,” he says. “But me and Talon [Shumway] are always getting clowned on for how old we are.”

Fonua figures to be a name BYU fans will see a lot of this season, because he’s suddenly near the top of the depth chart, or at the top, at middle linebacker. A couple weeks ago, Fonua says coaches approached him about moving across the line of scrimmage from running back to linebacker, and he was all for it.

“If it means I have a better chance of getting on the field, I’ll do it happily,” he says.

Fonua says he saw it coming when coaches bolstered the running backs group in the offseason by adding fifth-year graduate transfers Ty’Son Williams of South Carolina and Emmanuel Esukpa of Rice.

“I’ve always had a defender’s mindset anyway,” he says.

Coach Kalani Sitake called it a “no-brainer” to move Fonua because he has played safety and linebacker before, safety in 2014 as a freshman and linebacker in 2016 as a sophomore after a church mission to Vancouver.

“I’m not surprised [he hasn’t retired from football] because that’s the type of guy he is,” Sitake said. “He loves to compete, and he loves to be around the guys. I think it is a really cool feeling for him to be around the team. He brings a lot more to the team than just playing on the field. He’s a real leader and a real positive force in the locker room.”

Fonua was moved to running back in 2017 and rushed for 87 yards in four games before sustaining a series of season-ending injuries, most notably hurting his back. In 2018, he suffered a fractured leg in preseason training camp and could never quite get back to playing form.

Some people suggested that he hang it up, but his family and BYU coaches continued to offer encouragement and support, and he never wavered in his resolve to get back on the field.

“Never, never,” he said. “Right after the injury, I just went back to square one. My mindset has always been to get back as quickly as possible. I love the coaches, I love what BYU has. My family has always supported me, and that’s what really drives me to get back and be 100 percent every time.”

Linebackers coach Ed Lamb said Fonua’s history of being an excellent tackler — dating back to his days at Syracuse High when he totaled 175 tackles and six interceptions at the Northern Utah school.

“He has made a lot of tackles. He is a veteran defender and we moved him up to the top of the depth chart,” Lamb said, noting Payton Wilgar and Jackson Kaufusi are right there as well. “I told those three guys that those three are all starters and we will mix that up going forward.”

Running back/Linebacker Kavika Fonua’s BYU Timeline

2014: Played in 11 games as a true freshman, recording 14 tackles

2015: Served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Vancouver, British Columbia

2016: Played in 13 games as a sophomore, totaling 24 tackles

2017: Moved to running back, rushed for 87 yards in four games before sustaining season-ending back injury

2018: Sustained a season-ending leg fracture in preseason camp

2019: Reclassified as a junior in eligibility after receiving a medical hardship redshirt and moved back to linebacker in preseason camp