Brandon Matich’s opinion of Sam Taimani can be pared down to a pair of moments.
The first came during Taimani’s freshman season at Salt Lake City East High School in 2014. Today, Taimani is a 6-foot-2, 322-pound UW redshirt freshman defensive lineman.
But roughly five years and 140 pounds ago, he was a silky 185-pound wide receiver.
“He was lean enough and tall enough and fast enough and athletic enough to play wideout, and he did a great job,” said Matich, East’s varsity head coach. “In fact, I think he had a 98-yard touchdown reception against our biggest rival, Highland. He ran up the sideline for a touchdown. It was pretty amazing.”
Indeed, it’s amazing to imagine that the redshirt freshman cannonball that repeatedly wrecked the UW offensive line this spring was once sprinting down sidelines, dominating inferior defensive backs. But maybe that explains why Taimani so effortlessly added mass and made the move to offensive line during his sophomore season at East; why his fleet feet stonewalled opposing pass-rushers and steamrolled linebackers and cornerbacks for the better part of three seasons; why all the major recruiting services — 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN — ranked Taimani as a four-star offensive guard and top-300 prospect in the 2018 class.
Sam Taimani was a wide receiver. And in some ways, he still is.
“His sophomore year, he started to get bigger and his junior year he got even bigger and he started growing in different directions and became a big giant kid,” Matich said. “But I think his athleticism early on and his ability to play a skill position really helped him in the position he’s in now.”
About the position he’s in now: despite the fact that Taimani almost exclusively played offensive line during his final three seasons at East, UW recruited the Salt Lake City product on both sides of the ball. He committed to the Huskies as an interior defensive lineman, and after playing in one game last fall made a significant surge this spring. Without graduating seniors Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman, Taimani could be a major contributor in his redshirt freshman season.
Or, in other words: he could convert the athleticism Husky head coach Chris Petersen saw on tape to (another) new position.
“He’s powerful and explosive,” Petersen said last month. “That’s really what (sold us on him as a defensive lineman). He did play some defense when he was younger and then he spot played on defense (at East), but was primarily an O-lineman. I know we would have taken him on either side of the ball, for sure, offense or defense.
“But we kind of needed some D-linemen and he wanted to play there. So we went with that.”
The Huskies went with a 6-2, 322-pound rugby player, shot-putter, video gamer, basketball player and one-time wide receiver. They went with a guy just about everybody calls “Taki,” and a guy Matich called “probably the most athletic big man that we’ve ever had.”
That’s no small feat, considering that two of Taimani’s East teammates — Texas offensive lineman Junior Angilau and Utah offensive guard Paul Maile — currently reside on Power Five rosters.
It’s not Taimani’s size that truly separates him, but the way that mass can move.
“There’s two sides to Taki,” Matich explained. “Taki’s got this ‘Oh shucks,’ sweet disposition. He gets along with everybody. I have three little boys and he’s their favorite player and they love crawling all over him. They want Taki jerseys.
“Then there’s the side where you put the helmet on and he becomes a different beast. He is a monster. He’s got this aggressive, nasty side to him. If you ever watch his high school film, he’s got some of the most aggressive downfield blocks I’ve ever seen from a high school player. He took pride in it. We’d put him on a jet sweep where he had to go attack the corner and he would send that corner into orbit.”
That first side Matich mentioned? That brings us to our second moment.
A couple years ago, Matich and his kids were supporting Taimani — who previously went by the last name Vakalahi — at East’s state championship rugby match. At one point, the future UW defensive lineman suffered a significant injury, and Matich sprang into action. He climbed the fence, ran onto the field, helped his standout offensive lineman up and drove him to a nearby hospital. The doctors needed to order X-rays on what would eventually be diagnosed as a broken foot.
There was only one issue.
“They asked how I was related, because they can’t let him go to get X-rays unless I’m related,” Matich said. “He walked up and put his arm around me and said, ‘This is my pops. Can’t you see the family resemblance?’
“Since that time he’s called me dad.”
Genetics aside, Taimani is essentially family. The second-year Husky — who, as a redshirt freshman, is not available to the media — has made a habit of FaceTiming Matich on Fridays before football games. He has a close relationship with all three of his former head coach’s kids.
“I’ve coached a lot of kids, and he’s one of the guys that I’m most close to,” Matich said. “Taki cares about people. There’s nothing really phony about that. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He doesn’t hide who he is, and he genuinely cares about his friends, his teammates and just people in general. It makes him a powerful person and it makes people gravitate to him and want to be around Taki, because he’s such a big personality.
“He’s such a big, fun teddy bear of a person that it just feels like he’s got so much love to give everybody.”
Well, everybody except opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks. When the season starts, they might be sorry Taimani ever made the move from wide receiver.
“I thought Taki did a nice job even last year,” Petersen said this spring. “He was right there on the verge (of playing more). I think if we didn’t have this new redshirt rule last year with four games to play, he probably would have been a guy who would not have redshirted. We probably would have gotten him more reps.
“He did a nice job last year, which is really amazing because he wasn’t playing much defense in high school. He was really an offensive lineman that we converted, and usually it’s the other way around. So he’s kind of picked up where he left off and he’s doing a good job.”