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Sports >  UW football

UW’s Wayne Taulapapa preparing to play with a heavy heart after Virginia shooting

Nov. 17, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 17, 2022 at 5:03 p.m.

Washington running back Wayne Taulapapa scores a first-half touchdown against Oregon at Autzen Stadium last Saturday in Eugene.  (Tribune News Service)
Washington running back Wayne Taulapapa scores a first-half touchdown against Oregon at Autzen Stadium last Saturday in Eugene. (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Wayne Taulapapa will play his final game inside Husky Stadium Saturday.

He’ll do so with a heavy heart.

On Sunday night, three of Taulapapa’s former teammates at the University of Virginia – junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., junior linebacker D’Sean Perry and junior wide receiver Devin Chandler – were shot and killed while returning to campus from a class field trip. Junior running back Mike Hollins and another student were also shot; Hollins remains hospitalized.

The suspected shooter is former Virginia running back Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., who was arrested Monday. He faces three counts of second-degree murder, two counts of malicious wounding and additional gun-related charges. Virginia’s game against Coastal Carolina on Saturday has been canceled.

Taulapapa – a graduate student running back from Honolulu – transferred to UW this summer after spending the previous four seasons at Virginia. He was named a team captain for the Cavaliers in 2021 and earned the same honor at UW this season.

“Can’t put into words the physical and mental pain that comes with losing not just teammates, but brothers,” Taulapapa tweeted Monday. “You were never just football players, but rather examples of great and honorable young men. I’m with UVA families in prayer and support. Family, first, last, and always.”

The 24-year-old Taulapapa – whose college career was delayed two years by a church mission trip to Nicaragua – has made nine starts and leads the Huskies in rushing yards (546) and yards per carry (5.4) this season. He has added 199 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

In four previous seasons in Charlottesville, Virginia, the native Hawaiian compiled 1,192 rushing yards with 4.5 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns.

“Wayne has already been up to the offices today, and we all collectively put our arms around him,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said Monday. “He’s hurting. He knew those kids well. It’s a tough time for him right now, but he’s hanging in there and he’s got a lot of strength to give, and I know he’ll give back to those families.”

Of course, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Taulapapa – who, alongside sophomore Cameron Davis, has earned the bulk of UW’s running back reps – will have to contend with Colorado on Saturday.

While Senior Day should be a celebration, Taulapapa will be playing with immense pain.

“No. 1, it’s just being where his feet are as much as he can be,” said UW running backs coach Lee Marks, when asked how Taulapapa can play through grief. “Not only does he feel like he has a responsibility to himself but also to our team here, while still providing as much support from a distance as he can for the families and for the team at Virginia.”

Tackling troubles

No. 15 Washington missed a whopping 19 tackles in last weekend’s 37-34 win over Oregon, according to Pro Football Focus. Those deficiencies helped the Ducks rush for 312 yards with 6.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns, led by running backs Bucky Irving (143 yards, 7.5 YPC) and Noah Whittington (108, 5.4, 1 TD).

“They’ve just got some elite guys back there,” UW co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell said Monday. “Those guys are definitely slippery. They’re a handful. We knew it was going to be a challenge for us going into the game, and what we really ask our guys to do is constantly be relentless. If it’s not the first guy getting him on the ground, if it’s not the second guy getting him on the ground, you’ve got to have elite pursuit to the football. I thought our guys did a great job of that through the course of the game.”

It would not be accurate to say Edefuan Ulofoshio made the tackle that mattered.

He didn’t have to.

On fourth-and-1 from Oregon’s 34-yard line, tied at 34, Whittington took a handoff – and immediately slipped – with 1:29 left, prompting a critical turnover on downs. The 6-1, 235-pound Ulofoshio had powered through a hole and was in position to make a game-changing tackle.

“It was basically a goal-line call for us, and Eddy’s bearing down,” Morrell said. “So when that guy slips … he wasn’t going anywhere on that play. Guys just did a great job.”

Ulofoshio certainly made an impact in his second game back from a torn ACL, logging six tackles in just 27 snaps. Morrell said, “Down the stretch of the game, you let your guys roll and he was a super physical presence. It’s just great to have him back in there. He’s such a savvy, veteran player, and he’s very skillful. He did a great job of shedding blocks, getting off the blocks, being at the point of attack and driving the defense. It’s even more exciting, because we can slowly let his rep volume come up as he gets fully back. He was outstanding.”

Taking the ball first

Last Saturday, UW won the toss and chose to receive for the first time in Kalen DeBoer’s tenure – promptly producing a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.

That decision was made the day before.

“We’ve done that a few times throughout the years,” DeBoer said. “I’m so big on having that momentum going into halftime and how you come out (of halftime), especially when you have an experienced team. But we were also facing a team that plays so well and just jumps on top of people. So it just felt right for us to take the ball. We’ve had a lot of success in our first drives of the game (producing eight touchdowns and one field goal in 10 opening drives). I felt like we were pretty locked in. Between coach Grubb, (co-defensive coordinator William) Inge and coach Morrell, we all agreed that that was a great way to start the game.”

“We had some confidence in the game plan that we were going to go be able to go in there and strike the first blow,” Grubb said. “That was our most aggressive play and we wanted to show the kids that we had an attack mentality on that day. I told the guys on Saturday that we’d be taking the ball if we won the toss, and they were fired up. I think it was a good move by coach DeBoer and it got the appropriate response from the kids, and they were ready to compete.”

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