Alphonzo Tuputala couldn’t feel his foot.
The redshirt freshman from Federal Way didn’t need to be told he’d torn his Achilles tendon. After it popped during a pass rush drill, he felt nothing — and then he knew.
“I have a history with ankle sprains, so I already know what an ankle sprain feels like. So when it popped (during a practice in April 2020), I thought it was something with my ankle,” Tuputala said last week. “But when I got up and walked it felt completely different. I was walking, but I couldn’t even feel the bottom half of my foot touch the ground. So I had to stop and look to make sure.
“That’s when I knew. I knew way before they told me that was it.”
After walking half-numb up the Husky Stadium tunnel, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound linebacker made an instantaneous decision — while waiting for a UW doctor to confirm what he already knew.
“My mindset changed right there, to be honest with you. I remember lying on the table and waiting for (head football team physician Kim) Harmon to come see me, and then she told me,” Tuputala said. “But by that point I was already building my mental up, like ‘OK, this is what happened. I can’t say nothing else about that.’ So when I went to go shower, that was literally the only time I was ever going to cry, say all these things, doubt, feel sorry for myself. I promised myself that I wasn’t. ‘This is the first and last time I’m going to do this.’
“So once I got out of the shower, I went to the training room and told them, ‘What do we have to do?’ That was my mindset every day: ‘I have to do more. I have to do more. I have to do more. I have to sacrifice myself. I have to sacrifice myself. I have to do more.’ ”
For six months, that mantra guided his gradually strengthening steps — through rehab and workouts and (eventually) practices. After missing the first six games of the 2021 season, he returned against Arizona on Oct. 22 and notched six tackles and a tackle for loss in five games last fall.
And yet, Tuputala didn’t feel fully recovered until earlier this offseason, which is when he found other ways to improve.
“I changed everything — my routine, how I am here, how I am with my teammates and my coaches. Everything changed,” he said. “That came with talking to (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach William) Inge with the leadership aspect, taking it upon myself, praying every day, allowing God to guide me through whatever I have to go through and having my mindset straight. I feel just great.”
OK, maybe Tuputala — who 247Sports national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman noted “loves to hit” in a written evaluation in 2018 — hasn’t changed everything.
“The physicality,” Inge replied, when asked how Tuputala separates himself. “He can be a goon at the point of attack.”
That would be a welcome development for a UW defense that ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in opponent yards per carry (4.76) and 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (194) in 2021. Of course, those stats can also be attributed to a different system — and a different staff.
“All the way up to this point, I’m grateful for this (new) staff. I love this staff,” Tuputala said. “Everything they’re doing feels right. They don’t allow us to take a step back. It’s a big difference from how we were the past several years to now. This staff is on everything — whether it’s on-field preparation, off-field preparation, nutrition, getting the body right, recovery, activations in the morning. It just feels right. They’re on everything — the details.”
That staff has tabbed Tuputala — now a fourth-year sophomore — as a primary starter, beside Pitt transfer Cam Bright, in the first six practices of preseason camp. With standout Edefuan Ulofoshio expected to miss at least half the season with an undisclosed injury, Tuputala has held off UAB transfer Kristopher Moll and sophomores Carson Bruener and Daniel Heimuli … despite totaling just 13 tackles in his first three seasons at UW.
“If somebody who knew you those first couple years came and watched the way you operate,” a reporter began last week, “watched the way you go about your business — “
“They’d say I’ve matured,” Tuputala interjected.
Thanks, in part, to an Achilles tear.
“For Zo, here’s your time,” UW co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell said. “You’ve been in this program for a while. The expectations are high. He sets the bar for himself personally high, and that’s what gives me confidence in his ability to lead our defense.”
Likewise, Inge learned last spring that his persevering sophomore “has it in him. That he can be great. That he can do all the jobs that we want a linebacker to be able to do, and that his level of preparation is elite. That’s exactly what we want from leaders, because they set the example and they bring the others along.”
Tuputala is doing it all at UW, where Danny Shelton — a distant cousin — once handed out tickets to watch him play. Where he fell in love with football. Where he couldn’t feel his foot.
Where he decided to do more. More. More.
“It’s a major injury. It’s tough,” Tuputala said of the Achilles tear, his first significant injury. “A lot of guys, when it comes to the mental aspect, it’s really tough to make that switch (to attack rehab). I’m just really thankful that I did it that early.”