Wayne Taulapapa plays a beautiful game.
Though that’s up for interpretation. Taulapapa – a 5-foot-9, 200-pound running back and Virginia transfer – has built a reputation on brutality. He’s more hockey enforcer than home-run hitter – a purveyor of leg-churning, contact-craving 4-yard runs and determined touchdown plunges. His style is purposeful, not picturesque.
He conducts a pad-popping symphony.
“Growing up in Hawaii, we love contact. That’s the nature of the game, which is beautiful,” Taulapapa told the Times this week. “Obviously you’re going to get hit sometimes, which is fine. That’s part of the game. But if you can give it back, I think it’s a sight to see. It gets the team going. It gets the energy up. I think that’s the best part of football.”
Taulapapa’s your guy if you agree. In four seasons and 40 games at Virginia, the 2021 team captain – who entered the transfer portal primarily to move closer to home – compiled 1,192 rushing yards with 4.5 yards per carry, 20 total touchdowns … and a career long of 27 yards. He accepted a role as the Cavaliers’ short-yardage specialist, chiseling between the tackles for extra inches.
“Whatever I’m told to do, I will do it – when it comes to blocking, when it comes to pass-catching, when it comes to running the ball,” said Taulapapa, who announced a commitment to UW this month and has one season of eligibility remaining. “I’m known out of Virginia as a short-yardage back who attains every yard that I can, working hard – fourth-and-1, third-and-1 or 2. That’s something I’ve always done at Virginia. But I do want to expand and be a better back in all areas.”
That process began during Taulapapa’s high school career at Punahou High School in Hawaii, where he was ranked as a two-star prospect in the 2016 class by 247Sports. After amassing 3,279 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns as a three-year starter, Taulapapa signed with Virginia over BYU, Colorado, Navy and UNLV.
But his college career was delayed by a two-year church mission trip to Nicaragua – where Taulapapa learned to appreciate what he had (temporarily) lost.
“The mission trip kind of ruined my football IQ and physicality a little bit,” Taulapapa said with a laugh. “I came back a lot slower and a lot lighter than my teammates at the time. But what the mission did do is make me miss football a lot, so when I came back the drive was clear. I wanted to be the best in my group at what I did within the program.
“The development in the first couple years was about strength and speed, getting up to date with everybody else. Then the last few years I spent a lot of time working on my football IQ – understanding coverages, understanding plays, understanding zone reads and everything like that.”
While he finishes his undergraduate degree at Virginia this spring, Taulapapa has scheduled frequent Zoom calls with UW running backs coach Lee Marks to get a jump-start on the Huskies’ offense.
But if he wants to play at Washington, Taulapapa’s got more developing to do.
“We’re making sure we’re developing the guys in our room to be a complete running back,” Marks said last week. “We ask our running backs to do a lot of things – basically be a Marshall Faulk, really a complete running back overall. (We want) that style of runner, where we still have to be physical at times, still have to be able to block, catch and really be out on the field on all three downs.”
Not all of them. With transfers Taulapapa, Aaron Dumas (New Mexico) and Will Nixon (Nebraska) joining the program this offseason, it’s clear others will exit this summer. A pair of established contributors in junior Richard Newton and sophomore Cameron Davis are out for the spring with injuries, and the future for redshirt freshmen Jay’Veon Sunday, Emeka Megwa, Caleb Berry and Sam Adams II is also unclear.
In the last two classes under Jimmy Lake, UW typically targeted a similarly bruising style of back – such as Megwa (6-0, 213), Berry (6-1, 223) and Sunday (6-0, 206). But in seeking to stockpile physicality, they may have sacrificed versatility.
Likewise, Taulapapa produced just 28 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown in 40 games at Virginia.
But he believes – as must Marks – that he’s capable of more.
“I love the way they use their running backs,” said Taulapapa, who chose UW after also taking visits to Rice and Purdue. “The last couple years they’ve had the pleasure of coaching Ronnie Rivers and (Jordan) Mims, two great running backs at Fresno State. (The coaches utilized them) not simply by running the ball but also pass-catching and getting them out of the backfield, which I think is phenomenal. You don’t see that in a lot of programs. That’s something I’m excited about – just being able to expand the game, not just in the backfield and running the ball but pass-catching and being a focal point in the offense.”
Added Marks: “I want those guys to be themselves. They just have to understand, they have to be themselves within what we do offensively. That’s really to do everything. They better be able to catch and block and run the ball inside and outside, for sure.”
From a short yardage standpoint, we already know what Taulapapa – a tackle-breaking bowling ball – can do.
But versatility can be beautiful, too.
“The goal is a Pac-12 championship,” Taulapapa said. “That’s something that’s in Washington’s history continuously, and they always have had great football out there. The fans deserve something like that. So as a team that’s something I want to accomplish.
“But for myself, I just want to know I’ve left it all out there to be one of the greatest running backs to come out of the Pac-12. If not, I just want to know I’ve left everything out there.”
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