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LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville (23) celebrates with LSU linebacker Damone Clark (18), LSU defensive end Glen Logan (97) and LSU linebacker Soni Fonua (53) after the stop in the first half against Arkansas, Saturday, November 13, 2021, at Tiger Stadium on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

When senior defensive end Soni Fonua learned he would start against Alabama, he texted his former Mesa (Ariz.) Community College coach Ryan Felker.

"Biggest game tomorrow. But first off I just want to say thank you. Thank you for everything and the teachings you have given me and the words of wisdom. God had put you in my life for a reason and I am blessed to have you be a part of my life ..." 

He also called Chenelle Jones, his former defensive coordinator, and Fletcher Jones, his defensive line coach there. If they had any time to watch a game, this would be the one. 

Fonua started on a revived defense, playing an aggressive three-man front with more blitzes. Getting the start against the Tigers' toughest opponent didn't phase him because he's worked for moments like these. He stayed the course, letting his body heal through wounds, and endured the long hours of study hall to get there.

"It means a lot to Soni," coach Ed Orgeron said ahead of the Alabama game. "I think Soni's going to end up being a coach one day. He takes his technique seriously. He knows how to get aligned. He knows how to play several different positions. Whatever you give him, it's not too hard for him." 

Coaching would be natural for Fonua, a player who has had to work through junior-college football to earn a spot on an SEC roster.

Junior-college football isn't for the faint of heart, but Fonua knew his purpose when he arrived at Mesa. Before his first scrimmage against Arizona Western Community College, the No. 2 ranked JUCO program in the nation, Fonua had to sit back. He'd taken a cleat to the knee and needed stitches. 

"The first thing he said was, 'I can put a Band-Aid over it,' and I was like 'Nah, it's a preseason scrimmage,' " Chenelle said. "He wanted to compete because it was an opportunity to find out exactly where he was in preseason, but he was over there teaching every rep. And a guy that has infectious energy and humility ... that makes a great coach." 

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Fletcher said he remembers when Fonua committed to LSU. He wanted to know how he could properly thank all the other programs before going public. He also had a long way to go academically before he could transfer. Every morning, he'd be in the academic support department with his laptop at 8 a.m. or earlier. By the time coaches would call his teachers, he'd already touched base himself. 

It was a struggle to be far away from his big family in Utah, where he had six siblings. That familial culture bleeds into Fonua's approach to life, and even the game. He committed to LSU because the team felt like family, and now he hosts barbecues for his teammates. At junior college, that often meant feeding his roommates, too. 

"He did have some roommates down here and they all looked healthy at all times," Chenelle said. "So I'm pretty sure that he kept everybody fed." 

At LSU, that means he can feed a picky Damone Clark his favorite barbecue chicken, jambalaya, dirty rice, and mac and cheese. 

"It'd be times when Soni would get on the grill and text us on a Sunday, 'Y'all come eat,' " Clark said. "He's the chef of the team." 

"Twice a week, I probably go over there and see what he's got cooking, he can cook it all," linebacker Micah Baskerville said. 

That translates on the field, where Fonua is the teammate he needs to be in any scheme. Felker said he understands football on a different level, and Clark said Fonua will play any shade of the block. As one of the oldest members of the team, Baskerville looks up to him.

Fonua had two tackles and a pass deflection during the Alabama game, then four tackles against Arkansas, including two for loss. He's emerging at the right time. 

"I know like me being the leader of the defense, I got to bring energy, but that's somebody that I can look to," Clark said. 

Email Leah Vann at LVann@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter, @LVann_sports.