Unprompted and with deceptive nonchalance, Jimmy Lake dropped a casual bombshell in the first minute of his first news conference after the Huskies’ first workout of summer.
And in the process, changed everything you thought you knew about Washington’s football prospects in 2021.
Linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, the pass-rushing wunderkind who burst on the scene like a blazing comet last fall, only to suffer a devastating Achilles tear in April, will play this season for Washington.
Or, at least, so insisted Lake.
Lake’s declaration wasn’t conditional, mind you. He didn’t say, “We really hope ZTF will be back” or, “He’ll play this year if his rehab continues to go as well as it has been.”
No, Lake was about as definitive as one can be when assessing an injury that happened less than four months ago and is routinely gauged as having a six- to 10-month recovery time.
“He will for sure be seeing the field in 2021,’’ Lake said.
Those two words, “for sure,” are doing a lot of heavy lifting and piling a ton of expectations on Tupuola-Fetui’s eventual return. And also on the Huskies’ place in the college football hierarchy.
If ZTF’s recovery hits any roadblocks or setbacks, it will now be viewed as a huge letdown. But if Lake is right, the Huskies have a chance to make a leap from good to great. The first day of camp is always an optimal day for dreaming. For Husky fans, Lake managed to increase the magnitude of that dream immeasurably.
Anticipating a ZTF-less world, the Huskies were a team that certainly had the potential to be a strong contender for the Pac-12 title, but a lot of things had to go right. That list was (and still is) topped by the necessary improvement of an offense that ranked ninth in the conference in yards per game in last year’s four-game season.
They are hoping for a significant step forward from second-year quarterback Dylan Morris, whom Lake declared the starter in his second newsflash of the day, effectively pre-empting what had figured to be a heated battle for the QB job.
The Husky pass rush, sans Tupuola-Fetui, also figured to be an area of both potential and concern. Pencil in a ZTF return, and suddenly it’s awash with possibilities. The ripple effect up and down the defense of a guy who last year had seven sacks in the abbreviated season, an average of 1.75 per game — the most by an FBS player since the NCAA began recording individual sacks in 2000 — could be profound.
Lake heaped praise on Tupuola-Fetui’s single-minded devotion to attacking his rehabilitation with positivity and relentlessness. He hopes that ZTF sets an example for other injured players as proof that you can come back from a devastating injury, maybe sooner than expected, through hard work — though, again, if ZTF experiences a setback, it will cloud that message.
Lake certainly exuded enthusiasm, bordering on giddiness, in assessing Tupuola-Fetui’s potential at 260 pounds, down 18 from the weight at which he dominated opponents last year.
“I think he’s going to be even more explosive,’’ Lake said. “You guys saw the explosion he had in 2020. It’s going to be pretty scary to see even more explosion now. … His diet is better. His training is better. And so he’s locked in. He’s going to be ready to go. As soon as he’s full go, watch out.”
The burning question, of course, is when that’s going to be. Lake didn’t give a precise timetable, except to say he would be back in the regular season. As Mike Vorel points out, if ZTF adheres to the speediest aspect of a six- to 10-month timetable, the UCLA game Oct. 16 would fall precisely on the six-month anniversary of his injury (which occurred without contact during the Huskies’ sixth practice of spring).
“I remember the day he got injured,” Lake said. “He’s smiling, and he was like, ‘Coach, I’m going to come back way quicker than the experts think.’ And sure enough, that’s going to happen.”
UCLA is the sixth game of the season, but just the third in Pac-12 play, with key games against Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State, Colorado and Washington State still to come for Washington. In other words, plenty of time under this scenario for ZTF to make an impact during the meat of the Huskies’ regular season, and whatever lies beyond.
Pressed further on Tupuola-Fetui’s timeline, Lake smiled a satisfied smile and said, “I’ll just say our opponents better be ready for him.”
With one statement at a news conference, the Husky football season just got a whole lot more intriguing.