It took Wayne Taulapapa roughly two months to earn a starting spot.
And four plays to score.
On Monday, UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb was asked if he expected Taulapapa — a Virginia transfer and 2021 team captain — to seize the starting running back role.
“Yes. I did,” Grubb said bluntly, five days before UW’s opener against Kent State. “That might be hopeful, just in the fact that we had a belief in the mindset he would bring and the type of execution he’d be able to provide.
“He might be one of the most mature guys on our football team. So it means a lot to him. He’s in his last season. He’s been through all the years of being a younger player and how to get on the field and mistakes and how to do it right. I felt really strongly that he’d be able to come in and take that.”
For good reason. Taulapapa — a 5-foot-11, 207-pound graduate student from Honolulu — compiled 1,192 rushing yards, 4.5 yards per carry and 20 total touchdowns in four seasons and 40 career games at Virginia, after completing a two-year church mission trip in Nicaragua. Upon settling in Seattle, he was named one of six Husky captains last month.
And in UW’s first offensive drive of the 2022 season, Taulapapa took four consecutive carries — the last being a 28-yard touchdown run through a seismic hole on the left side on fourth-and-one. (His longest run of the 2021 season, by the way, was 27 yards.) He finished with a team-high 57 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry and the aforementioned touchdown.
And yet, UW has seven scholarship running backs — and sophomore Cameron Davis and redshirt freshman Nebraska transfer Will Nixon received significant reps Saturday as well. Nixon — a 5-11, 192-pounder — actually played wide receiver for two seasons at Nebraska, after excelling in both roles at Midway High School in Waco, Texas.
That versatility has allowed Nixon to find a fast fit in the Husky offense.
“He is very multiple, which is what we expect out of our tailbacks,” Grubb said of Nixon, who compiled nine carries for 29 yards and three catches for 22 more. “He catches really well out of the backfield. Will does not look like a receiver trying to play running back. Will was a very accomplished running back in high school, both statistically and when you watch his film. So we felt very confident that he would be able to be a true tailback.
“At Nebraska I know they had him more as a wideout, but we felt like that hybrid player would fit us perfectly. And he’s done that. He’s lived up to his expectations.”
Fourth down flurries
UW converted a pair of fourth down attempts early, with Taulapapa delivering the 28-yard touchdown before quarterback Michael Penix Jr. gained four yards on fourth-and-1 from his own 32-yard line (after first attempting to draw Kent State off side) on the following drive.
Those gambles reflect a philosophical approach.
“I just felt like we could get it,” DeBoer said with a smile. “It was a long yard. I knew in my heart that this is a chance to set the tone. I’m proud of the guys, the way they executed that (quarterback sneak). There was a lot of mechanics to get the first down and try to take the edge off the defense. A couple hard counts did that. It was big, because that led to a touchdown drive and a two-score lead.”
A potentially important injury
UW starting cornerback and UC Davis transfer Jordan Perryman left the game in the third quarter with a left leg injury. DeBoer declined to provide an update following the win.
In Perryman’s place, junior Julius Irvin — who’s listed as a safety — played opposite sophomore Mishael Powell.
DeBoer said Irvin has been practicing at corner for the last “couple weeks.”
“‘Cross-train’ is a good word to use, where he can play multiple spots,” DeBoer said of Irvin. “We’ve got a few guys that are that way. We just want to always make sure we can get the best players on the football field, and Julius is a guy that can run. Guys that can run can step out there and need to be on the football field for us.
“I just love the confidence I saw in him last week when I went and asked him, ‘How do you feel about this?’ He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m ready. This is what it’s all about. This is fun. I love it. I’m getting a chance to show what I can do, and I’ll be ready wherever you need me.’”
Irvin contributed a pass breakup and narrowly missed an interception. Redshirt freshman corner Davon Banks played briefly as well.
Hampton’s big move
Dominique Hampton switched positions this offseason.
But that’s not all.
The fifth-year cornerback, turned safety, turned hybrid “husky” nickelback/linebacker, traded No. 21 for No. 7 as well — accepting the reputation that accompanies that number.
“I wear seven because in high school I put on 21. One of the better players on our team used to wear that, and I was able to wake up and try to fill that number that was on my chest,” Hampton said this week, before tallying three tackles and a pass breakup against Kent State. “That’s why I switched to seven. With players like Shaq Thompson, Keishawn (Bierria) and Taylor Rapp, it was a number I wanted to fill and continue that Husky legend with the seven.”
Naturally, Hampton must make strides to match his predecessors. In four seasons in Seattle, the 6-3, 221-pounder has produced 39 tackles with three passes defended and one forced fumble. But co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell is confident that Hampton’s best football will be played this fall.
“Dom’s very unique. He’s got an incredible skill set,” Morrell said. “You’re talking about one of the strongest and fastest guys on the team, and he’s sitting there weighing 220, 225 pounds. So I think it’s a great weapon for us in terms of game planning. We can move him around and put him in multiple spots, have him be physical off the edge but still walk out and cover slot receivers. There’s not a lot of guys that have the ability to do both of those things.
“So I think we’re fortunate to have his skill set right now and I have super high confidence in him being an impact player on Saturday.”
Odunze’s individual goals
Of course, Rome Odunze wants to help Washington win games.
But the 6-3, 201-pound wide receiver has set more personal goals as well.
“I want to go for at least a thousand yards and I’m looking to get double-digit touchdowns, get my YAC (yards after catch) up,” he said. “Those two (goals), to be a thousand-yard receiver and get double-digit touchdowns, have been really on my mind. And wins. I’m focusing on making the team better.
“The Pac-12 championship is what we’ve been focused on for a long time, and we break (from huddles) on that. So it’s team first.”
Odunze contributed to a team win Saturday, compiling a team-high seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Logically, individual and team success could be simultaneous. Odunze — who led UW in catches (41) and receiving touchdowns (4), despite appearing in just nine games last fall — knows he’s capable of more than he’s shown in his first two seasons in Seattle.
“I feel like I have a lot (to show),” he said. “I pride myself on, once I catch the ball, how special I can be. I’ve shown glimpses of that, but I haven’t given everybody a real show of what I can do out there.”
Despite Odunze finishing just sixth among UW wide receivers in yards per catch (10.1) in 2021, Grubb said the Las Vegas native is the most likely Husky to take the top off opposing defenses. But pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard also emphasized that Odunze isn’t alone.
“It’s not just him,” Shephard said. “Giles Jackson gets deep frequently. Jalen McMillan gets deep frequently. Taj Davis gets deep frequently. So it’s not just one person.”
- Redshirt freshman right tackle Roger Rosengarten (6-6, 303) made his first career start against Kent State. But that looked far from a certainty early in preseason camp. “Athleticism and aggressiveness are two of Roger’s better attributes,” Grubb said. “I really thought early in camp that he had a long way to go. He almost would play irresponsibly at times with his technique, and out of control. I remember having a conversation with him and (offensive line coach Scott) Huff early in camp, that if he wasn’t able to get that reeled in there would be no reason for him to be out there. I think he took that seriously.”
- Junior Matteo Mele played at center in the second half Saturday, in place of senior starter Corey Luciano. DeBoer clarified that Luciano was not injured. “We’re just moving guys around, challenging guys,” he said. “It’s nothing that we saw where we were disappointed or frustrated. We were just trying to move lineups around, trying to get more guys opportunities. We think (Mele) is a great athlete. We’re just trying to always plan for the ‘what ifs.'”
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