After being away from competitive football the past three years, Thomas Shoaf was an unlikely candidate to be a starting offensive lineman on a Division I team.

But when BYU’s starting right tackle went down with an injury the second week of the season, Shoaf was there to step in. Aside from an ankle injury that kept him out of one game, the 2013 Columbus North graduate has been there ever since.

“It was kind of bittersweet,” Shoaf said.

“I missed the game, but I also had a nice chance to allow my body to recover from high school football. All those dings and bruises I had coming out of high school were able to heal. To come back with a renewed sense of desire to play and to get back on the field, I think that’s really helped me in the last nine months.”

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Shoaf spent the fall of 2013 as a redshirt with the Cougars. But then he went on a two-year Mormon mission, as most BYU students do at some point during their college days.

During his mission in Hawaii, Shoaf said he did a lot of service and talked to people about Jesus Christ.

“It was a great fit for me, and I knew it would be a smooth transition coming back,” Shoaf said. “I thought it was best to go out there for a year and kind of get settled and figure out what was going on out there and then leave so I’d have something to come back to.”

While on the mission in Hawaii, the 6-foot-5 Shoaf lost only five of the 25 pounds he had put on since graduating from high school. He returned at 260 in January and is now up to 275, with plans to put on another 20 to get to 295.

Shoaf said he was able to work out by playing basketball and helping people in their yards.

“Sometimes when missionaries come home, depending where they went and what their body is like, you kind of have to let that play out,” BYU offensive line coach Mike Empey said. “He got home in time to start school in January and go through spring ball and have 8-9 months in the weight room, so that worked out to his advantage.”

Junior Ului Lapuaho started the first two games at right tackle for BYU but injured a knee in the second game of the season. Sophomore Austin Hoyt started the third game, but Shoaf entered late in the first quarter.

Shoaf then started the next four games.

“I always trained like I would (be a starter),” Shoaf said. “You have to have that mindset if you want to compete at the highest level, so when Ului went down for us, I was able to step in, and it was great to be able to do so.”

Early in his third start, a 31-14 win at Michigan State, a player rolled up on Shoaf, and he sustained a severe high ankle sprain. He played through it, but then in overtime of a 28-21 win against Mississippi State the following week, he was rolled up on again and left the game.

With a short week going into a Thursday night game at Boise State and then a bye the following week, coaches decided to have Shoaf rest the ankle. He was back in the lineup on Saturday and helped the Cougars to a 20-3 win at Cincinnati.

“It was great,” Shoaf said. “At Boise, it was difficult to stand on the sideline watching my team play without me. So it was great to be back on the field, especially so close to home.”

Shoaf said he gave out tickets to 30 friends and family members and saw about another 30 people he knew from Columbus on Saturday at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium.

With BYU leading the Bearcats 17-3 and 11:20 remaining, Shoaf was in his element. He and the rest of the offensive line helped the Cougars put together a drive that salted away all but the final 1:39 and resulted in a 19-yard field goal that put them ahead by three scores.

“He does a good job zone blocking and has a good head for the game,” Empey said. “He understands what’s going on, and he’s just done a really solid job. He’s a freshman, so he has a lot of upside. We expect a lot more from him down the road.”

A civil engineering major, Shoaf hasn’t ruled out the idea of playing professional football when his college eligibility runs out.

“I definitely think it’s a worthwhile goal, and if I don’t make it, I don’t make it,” Shoaf said. “But it’s something worth pursuing.”

But Shoaf has a lot of college football left to play. This year, BYU has three games — all at home — left in the regular season, likely followed by a bowl game.

At 5-4, the Cougars need to win only one of those final three to become bowl eligible. They already would have clinched, but they’ve lost the four games by a grand total of eight points.

“I think we’ve had a great season,” Shoaf said. “A lot of games against a lot of great teams have been close, and we haven’t executed at the end. But I feel like we’ve improved every week, and we’ve made a lot of strides. For the first year with the new staff and the new offense, I think we’ve done really well, and I’m excited for the last three games and for the bowl game.”

Thomas Shoaf

Name: Thomas Shoaf

High school: Columbus North

College: BYU

Year: Redshirt freshman

Position: Right tackle

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 275

Notable: Shoaf went on a two-year Mormon mission to Hawaii after his first football season at BYU.

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.