Utes defensive tackle Junior Tafuna ready to replace injured Viane Moala if his number is called

Tafuna recorded four total tackles against San Diego State.

(Maddie Hansen) University of Utah second-year freshman defensive tackle Junior Tafuna could be a viable replacement for Viane Moala, who suffered a season-ending injury.

When Junior Tafuna has a chance to get away from football, he takes his relaxation seriously.

The second-year freshman defensive tackle for the University of Utah enjoys eating out with his wife and pet pit bull, riding bikes, taking walks in parks, watching “Modern Family” on TV and playing games with his teammates.

“If I’m away from football, I’m probably the most laziest kid — unless I have to work out,” Tafuna said this week. “Whenever I can get away, I get away.”

Luckily for the Utes, Tafuna’s on-field ethos falls right in line with the team’s defensive culture, which is predicated on being tough, relentless and, as defensive end Nathan Fillinger said recently, “nasty.”

But Tafuna and the rest of Utah’s defensive tackles will have to perpetuate that culture moving forward without one of their leaders. Viane Moala suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s triple-overtime loss to San Diego State. Now Tafuna is considered one of the defensive tackles who can potentially replace Moala in the lineup.

“I think all the guys have emerged in their own way,” Utah defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha said. “We have that saying, ‘Next man up.’ Well, everybody prepares like they’re the next man up. So Junior has been one of those guys that’s just been preparing day in and day out, put in the work. And when his number is called, he’s ready to go.”

Against the Aztecs, Tafuna recorded three solo tackles and one assisted tackle. Against BYU, he didn’t record a single one.

Tafuna said it was “emotional” to learn Moala would not return this season. It gives the team — particularly the rest of the defensive tackles — extra motivation to succeed this season, he said.

“It’s our main motivator for all of us,” Tafuna said, “It adds on to our ‘why’ — why we play ball. We have our ultimate team goal: go all the way. It adds on more of why we need to go — because he’s not there to do it with us.”

Po’uha said the way the defense stepped up in the tail end of the game against SDSU was a testament to what Moala means to the team.

“They did it because of his leadership,” Po’uha said of Moala. “They did it because of him. So maybe not physically he’s here with us, but everybody has purpose through Viane.”

The Utes defense will get their first taste of life without Moala on Saturday at home against Washington State, which has a quarterback in Jayden de Laura who is second in the Pac-12 in touchdowns (six) and fifth in passing yards per game (191.7). The Cougars also have running back Max Borghi, who averages 72.3 rushing yards per game.

Tafuna understands that with Moala’s absence, it provides every defensive tackle in the room an opportunity to show what he’s made of. And if the coaching staff calls No. 58, he’ll be ready.

“If I get the chance to play, I’m going to go out and do my best,” Tafuna said.