Less than four months after tearing his left Achilles tendon, Zion Tupuola-Fetui wore a jersey and cleats while he watched his teammates practice on Friday, gripping a football and walking without any hint of a limp.
When he suffered the non-contact injury during a practice on April 16, the expectation was that Washington’s All-American outside linebacker would miss 6-10 months — likely swallowing the entire 2021 season.
On Friday, UW head coach Jimmy Lake dramatically reset expectations — declaring that “ZTF” will play in the upcoming regular season.
“Zion, who I’m sure you saw out there, is way head of schedule. He will for sure be seeing the field in 2021,” Lake said. “It’s been exciting watching him. We knew he was going to attack his rehab, and he is way ahead of where our doctors thought he was going to be. So we’re excited about that.”
When asked for a specific timetable for Tupuola-Fetui’s return, Lake smiled and said: “I’ll just say, our opponents better be ready for him.”
Opponents did not appear ready last fall, when the sophomore from Pearl City, Hawaii, exploded for seven sacks and three forced fumbles in just four games — leading the nation with 1.75 sacks per game. And, despite the injury, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound pass-rusher also shed 20 pounds this offseason — landing at what Lake described as a more desirable weight.
“I think he’s going to be even more explosive,” Lake said. “It’s also going to limit his injuries, being at that weight. You guys saw that explosion that he had in 2020. It’s going to be pretty scary to see even more explosion now with about 18 pounds off of him.
“His diet is better. His training is better. He’s locked in. He’s going to be ready to go. As soon as he’s full go, watch out.”
If we stick to the original six-month return timetable, “ZTF” could conceivably suit up for the Huskies’ sixth game of the season against UCLA on Oct. 16. That would also make UW’s most disruptive force available for high-profile conference match ups against Stanford (Oct. 30), Oregon (Nov. 6), Arizona State (Nov. 13), Colorado (Nov. 20) and Washington State (Nov. 26).
Of course, for Washington fans, this is wishful thinking.
But it suddenly seems like a realistic possibility, not a pipe dream.
“It’s all really his drive and his competitiveness and how he was itching and scratching to get back on the football field. That’s what it is,” Lake said. “He’s been in that weight room, in the training room, every single day. He’s been bugging our trainers about what he can do extra. His body looks great. He’s at the weight he wants to be at. He looks slimmer, faster, more explosive.
“I’m sure you saw him out there with his cleats on today. It’s just awesome to watch. It’s awesome for the rest of our team to watch how you attack your rehab and how you get your body back right after an injury like he had.”