In a video feature published by the UW football program last Thursday, Zion Tupuola-Fetui called the 2021 season “a prove-it year.”
Roughly 24 hours later, the All-American outside linebacker tore his left Achilles tendon in a scrimmage drill during UW’s sixth practice of the spring. “ZTF” will have surgery this week and is expected to miss roughly 6-10 months, though head coach Jimmy Lake stopped short of declaring him out for the season.
Now, the Washington Huskies will have to prove they can win games without him.
“If you guys remember, about a year ago nobody was talking about ZTF. Nobody even knew those initials,” Lake said Wednesday, following UW’s ninth practice of the spring. “So we have really quality players at that position, and now it’s their turn to take over an opportunity and run with it. We’ll see who those names are going to be. You guys know the names that are out there, that are making plays this spring. Some of those guys made plays last fall. So some players are going to have to emerge.”
Of course, it’ll likely take a team effort to replace Tupuola-Fetui — who produced 13 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in just four games last fall, leading the nation with 1.75 sacks per game. In his first season as a starter, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound pass-rusher from Pearl City, Hawaii, was named a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and a second-team All-American by both The Athletic and Walter Camp.
Coincidentally, junior outside linebacker Laiatu Latu — the player “ZTF” effectively replaced last fall — was also forced to medically retire this offseason due to a neck injury.
All of which makes the return of sixth-year senior Ryan Bowman unequivocally critical. The 6-1, 280-pound outside linebacker has proven a dependable and versatile defender — totaling 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in his last full season in 2019.
But, besides Bowman, which outside linebackers need to emerge?
The list should start with redshirt freshman and former five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls, who contributed seven tackles in four games last fall. The 6-3, 255-pound Kennedy Catholic alum has the athletic traits to terrorize opposing offenses. And now he has the opportunity to do so as well.
But will Smalls — who has been limited with an apparent injury this spring — be ready to make a significant leap in his second season with the Huskies?
The same question can be asked of fellow redshirt freshman Cooper McDonald — a 6-3, 245-pounder from Haslet, Texas, who earned effusive praise from Lake on Wednesday.
“I go back to that play against Arizona (last season) when he almost intercepted it with one hand,” Lake said. “Just with the way he did it, and then when he came to the sideline with his demeanor, you could tell this game is not too big for him as a true freshman. As soon as I saw his demeanor after that play I knew we had a good player on our hands. You can just see the confidence in him every single day.”
Suddenly, the addition of Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin seems invaluable as well. A 6-3, 265-pound athlete from San Bernardino, Calif., Martin certainly looks the part — but the former four-star prospect didn’t score a single sack in three uneventful seasons in College Station, Texas. Now, it’s up to Martin and outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe to tap into the talent that yielded 30.5 sacks in his senior season at Cajon High School in 2017.
“You can tell he’s a vet in the way he practices,” Lake said of Martin on Wednesday. “But that’s another guy who we’re throwing the whole playbook at, and he’s coming into a system that’s got a lot of details. I know he will continue to only get better and better as we move into training camp in the fall. That’s another young man we’re excited about.”
Malloe is certainly excited about 6-4, 255-pound sophomore Bralen Trice, who he said this spring could eventually be better than former Husky Joe Tryon. But in the wake of Tupuola-Fetui’s injury, the timeline for Trice — who didn’t play in his first two seasons in Seattle — might have to be significantly sped up. Redshirt freshmen Jordan Lolohea and Carson Bruener are also practicing at the position, and three-star freshman Maurice Heims will join the fray this summer.
In the three practices since “ZTF” exited with his foot elevated in the passenger seat of a medical cart, Smalls, Trice and McDonald have all earned starting reps alongside Bowman. And on Wednesday, junior inside linebacker M.J. Tafisi was occasionally inserted to rush off the edge as well.
“You talk about a guy that’s pulling the trigger and going and making plays,” Lake said of Tafisi. “It’s nice to see him back to what he was about two years ago when we saw those early flashes, before his unfortunate injury (a severe stinger against Arizona in Oct. 2019). I’m extremely excited about M.J.”
And, despite the injuries to Tupuola-Fetui and Latu, Lake added that “I’m still extremely excited about the (outside linebacker) room.” It’s a room that ranked tied for 2nd in the Pac-12 and 45th nationally with 2.5 sacks per game last season — an improvement over the program’s production in 2019 (2.23, 58th nationally) and 2018 (1.71, 100th).
But the Huskies simultaneously struggled to make stops behind the line of scrimmage. Their 4.25 tackles for loss per game ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 118th in the nation, continuing a downward trend that has stretched three seasons.
Tackles for loss per game
2020: 4.25 (118th nationally, 11th Pac-12)
2019: 5.46 (87th, 9th)
2018: 4.57 (118th, 11th)
2017: 6.62 (40th, 3rd)
2016: 6.5 (40th, 3rd)
2015: 7.0 (27th, 4th)
2014: 6.5 (39th, 6th)
In a prove-it year, Washington’s outside linebackers must improve without their best player.
At least, for a while.
“He’s got a smile on his face, and he told me he’s going to be back and ready to go at some point during the 2021 season,” Lake said of Tupuola-Fetui. “I believe he will, with the way he’s going to attack rehab.”