Washington State safety Taylor Taliulu has been the bedrock of the Cougars’ defense this season. He also is an aspiring musician, dabbles with clothing design and has an interest in video production.
Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch admits that when he first met Cougars safety Taylor Taliulu this past winter and heard about Taliulu’s extensive list of extracurricular activities, he questioned whether Taliulu might be spreading himself too thin.
“He’s a unique guy,” Grinch said Wednesday. “One (for whom) my biggest fear early was that with all he’s involved in, where’s football in the pecking order?”
Grinch’s initial concern was understandable. Because Taliulu has a wide variety of interests, all of which he’s pursued to varying degrees throughout his career at Washington State.
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The senior from Hawaii is a budding musician whose signature song “Wazzu” blares from the loudspeakers at Martin Stadium before every football game. In September, Taliulu – who goes by “Tay Ali” in the music world — released his first album entitled “East Side Story” that’s available for free download on SoundCloud. Talliulu says his songs have been played about 73,000 times on SoundCloud.
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Taliulu also dabbles with clothing design, is trying to launch a clothing line and has a strong enough interest in video production that he shot and produced a miniseries called “The Grind” over the summer that chronicles the life of the WSU football team in the offseason.
But even though he has not stopped pursuing his other interests during football season – he released a new song online on Oct. 26 – Taliulu has shown Grinch and everyone else watching this fall that football is very much atop the pecking order on his priority list.
Due to how thin the Cougars are at safety through the first eight games of the season, Taliulu has been an iron man for the defense. Until Isaac Dotson returned to the lineup in November after missing a month due to an undisclosed injury, Taliulu had played every single snap at strong safety this season. And he did it with an intensity and consistency that’s made him one of the leaders in WSU’s defense.
Taliulu had one of his best games of the year against UCLA last week, finishing second only to Peyton Pelluer with six total tackles, including five solo stops.
“All my worries weren’t accurate,” Grinch said. “Very clearly, he wants to be a leader in this program. There’s not a guy in the program who doesn’t have respect for Taylor. He’s a consistent, steady player who doesn’t get wide-eyed by much and he’s been a big piece of what we’re doing.”
Taliulu is one of 16 seniors the No. 24 Cougars (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) will honor on Senior Night this Saturday in their home finale against Colorado, and he’s one of only eight senior starters on WSU’s young roster.
Going into this season, Taliulu was a grizzled veteran in the WSU defensive backs’ meeting room – a three-year starter and the only upperclassman in the two-deep whom Grinch leaned on to set an example for the younger guys.
The safeties are responsible for making calls in Grinch’s defense, and that’s what he worked on most intensively with Taliulu.
“My confidence, and just being able to communicate and being the quarterback of the defense, that was what (Grinch) helped me out with – giving me the ability to be confident in what we do,” Taliulu said.
That confidence has translated onto the field, and less than a year after WSU gave up 33 passing touchdowns and finished last in the Pac-12 in pass defense, the Cougars now have the conference’s fifth-best pass defense, and have not allowed a single passing touchdown in their last three games.
That tangible improvement has been all the more satisfying for seniors such as Taliulu, who’s been such a big part of the program’s seesawing fortunes over the last four years.
“It’s honestly been a roller coaster,” Taliulu said this week. “Ever since I’ve been here, from my freshman year to now, it’s been a total 360-(degree change) and it’s just a blessing to see the guys and all the hard work we’ve put in.”
He’s grateful that the Cougars are already bowl eligible, because that means this senior class will get one more game at the end of the year. But the fact that his college football career is rapidly coming to an end has not been lost on Taliulu.
“I’ve been thinking about it. I’m just really blessed to be here, and I’m so thankful to get the opportunity,” Taliulu said. “Walking out (of the tunnel at Martin Stadium) for the last time, I know it’s going to hit me. It’s kinda been hitting me these last couple of games, riding on the bus, just everything. I only have a couple of Tuesday practices left.
“You think about everything you’ve done and all the time you’ve had. It’s going to be pretty sad, but I’m excited to finish the season strong and see what happens with the next part of my life.”
Whatever happens, it’s almost guaranteed to be colorful. Taliulu, 21, plans to move to Los Angeles to live with his older sister, Jasmine Merseberg, and pursue the budding creative career he’s forged during his time at WSU.
He’s pretty serious about his music, which he describes as “mainstream hip-hop.” Taliulu counts Travis Scott and Drake among his strongest musical influences, and he writes his own lyrics. He also has his own studio at his house and he produces most of his songs.
Merseberg, who is five years older than Taliulu, says her brother’s creative streak comes from their mother, who studied graphic design in college. Even from a young age, Taliulu had a strong interest in music. He was in the marching band at Honolulu’s Kamehameha High – though he’d compete with the football team on Friday nights instead of playing in the halftime show with the band. He also taught himself to play the guitar and the piano.
Taliulu taught himself to use Adobe Photoshop and to edit video footage after studying instructional YouTube videos online, and he shot and edited almost all the footage used in “The Grind” series he produced over the summer.
Taliulu likes to draw in his free time, and he’s also played around with sneaker designs. That, Merseberg says, was the impetus behind the clothing line he’s trying to launch this spring with his business partner, a former WSU student and fellow Hawaiian named Mikey Tam. Taliulu designs all the clothes in his “Verified” line of street wear.
So far, the WSU community has embraced everything Taliulu has produced. WSU fans, Taliulu’s teammates and the coaches loved “The Grind,” which has amassed almost 22,000 views over all four episodes combined since it launched on YouTube in July. The guys on the team often give Taliulu input on his clothing designs.
“It’s nice that the school and the community supports him in his other endeavors and not just football,” Merseberg said. “It’s a great way to show that our football players can do other things as well as play football. I think his major strength is knowing his passions and following them. That’s been an inspiration to myself.
“No matter what happens in life, whatever the obstacles, anything my brother wants to, he’ll fight for it and learn as much as he can to get it done.”
The clothing line, videography skills and music production, combined with his commitment to the football team, and the demands of his sports management major have all kept Taliulu pretty busy. He says there are nights when he’s up till 4 a.m. working on stuff – whether it’s watching film in preparation for WSU’s next game, or making music.
But that’s the way Taliulu likes it. As he expresses in the chorus of “Would You” from his debut album, he has dreams to fulfill and is willing to work to get there.
I would stay up all night, thinking how I’m going to make it.
I would stay up all night, thinking how the hell you made it
I would stay up all night, these thoughts are creative
I would stay up all night.
Would you stay up all night?
It’s not just work though. The music making, video production and clothing design have been much-needed creative outlets for Taliulu during his time at WSU.
“Music is an outlet for me to vent all my feelings out and be super-creative with it,” Taliulu said.