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Utah safety Vaki wants to follow in 49ers star Hufanga's footsteps

Utah safety Vaki wants to follow in 49ers star Hufanga's footsteps originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

INDIANAPOLIS — There are a lot of connections between the 2024 NFL Draft class and the 49ers, but the one between Utah safety Sione Vaki and San Francisco star Talanoa Hufanga is a little less known.

The 2024 draft prospect spoke at the NFL Scouting Combine and shared how important Hufanga’s identification of his Tongan background is to young Polynesian college and NFL players. Hufanga’s big-play celebration includes placing his left fist in the middle of his right forearm, making a T, that stands for his Tongan heritage.

“Talanoa is throwing up all the T’s right now,” Vaki said. “Talanoa is putting up for all the Tongans right now. That’s what I’m about. I’m about my culture, being Tongan. He’s learned from the best of the best in Troy Polamalu. You can see it on the field.”

The 5-foot-11, 210 pound Vaki appeared in 26 games for the Utes, including 17 starts, racking up 92 tackles in his final two seasons — 71 solo, 12 for a loss, along with two quarterback sacks, six pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble.

Maybe the most interesting part of Vaki’s game is his two-way playing ability. Through two seasons at Utah, he also played appeared on offense, recording 42 carries for 317 yards and two touchdowns as well as 11 receptions for 203 yards and an additional three receiving scores.

The versatile prospect just hopes to represent Tonga as Hufanga has.

“Talanoa is doing a great job of carrying that torch,” Vaki said. “It means everything. No one knew about the Ts until Talanoa stepped on the field and really started throwing it up. Now you got [Los Angeles Chargers LB] Tui Tuipulotu throwing it up as well.

“Just making a name for our culture and for the kids younger than us, showing that we can make it to the big stage as well.”

Vaki is the youngest of the 11 children and the first with a chance to have a shot to play in the NFL. While the safety had no prior experience at running back, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham believed Vaki would make the most of his opportunity.

Vaki’s experience as a slot receiver in high school might have helped him avoid defenders with the ball in his hands. His 158 rushing yards against Cal on Oct. 14 were the highest by a Pac-12 defensive back in recorded conference history.

Vaki also became the first Utah defensive back with two rushing touchdowns in a game since retired NFL safety Eric Weddle in 2006.

The 22-year-old has spent most of his college time playing at safety, but like Hufanga did as a young prospect, Vaki is wiling to make his mark on special teams or wherever the coaching staff asks.

“Everyone goes through struggle but when you’re Polynesian, you’re family oriented, you have a lot of pride and respect for your culture and your elders around you,” Vaki said. “To have that represented at the highest level means a lot to me.

“[Hufanga’s] physicality, his IQ and his ability to make plays -- he’s a playmaker. That’s what I try to be when I step on the field.”

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