Wayne Taulapapa reveals the secret to his power running game

wayne taulapapa
Wayne Taulapapa celebrates with teammates after a fourth quarter touchdown. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

There were times in Saturday’s season opener when UVA tailback Wayne Taulapapa reminded you of a guy in a strongman competition dragging a bus full of screaming tourists down the street.

I remember saying out loud more than once: somebody had access to a squat rack during quarantine.

Turns out it wasn’t a squat rack.

The secret: sand dunes.

“When I first started playing football, as young kid, you know, going out with my family, always being on the beach, just running drills on the sand and, you know, just working through hard terrain,” said Taulapapa, a junior who spent the first few months of quarantine back in his native Hawaii, and made the most of what he had available to him in terms of training.

If you’ve ever tried to run in sand, you know how danged near impossible it is, and how running on a multimillion-dollar football field – even with defenders on your back – might seem easy in comparison.

Taulapapa ran for a career-high 95 yards on 16 carries with two rushing TDs in the 38-20 win over Duke on Saturday, keying a rushing attack that put up an impressive 188 yards on the day.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae had emphasized all summer that they wanted to get more out of the ground game.

The early returns are looking good.

Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, in his first career start, added 47 yards on 10 carries with a rushing TD, and Towson grad transfer Shane Simpson contributed 38 yards on eight totes.

“We did a really nice job down the stretch with Wayne and Shane running the football. And also, Brennan helped himself with his legs here and there as those runs were mixed in,” Mendenhall said.

“It just added more balance,” Mendenhall said. “It tired Duke. It took a different physical toll, as the run game is different than the pass game. And just allowed us to find more rhythm.”

Taulapapa and Simpson have developed their own rhythm. You might expect to see them silo-ing themselves because they’re competing with each other for playing time, but counter to what you’d expect, the two work together to make each other better when they’re in the lineup.

“When we get to the sidelines, we both talk to each other about what we see, things that we can do better, and stuff like that. And so, you know, we’re always exchanging ideas and things that way,” Taulapapa said.

That’s how you want things to work.

And how they’ll need to work, with #1 Clemson next on the schedule.

It’s a rematch of the 2019 ACC Championship Game, won by Clemson, 62-17.

Lost in the carnage of that ugly final score is that the UVA offense was able to gain an impressive 387 yards on Clemson, the first time to that point in the 2019 season that the Tigers had even surrendered 300 yards in a game.

The lesson from that night: “Most importantly, just, you know, understanding and respecting that they are a great football team, especially on the defensive side,” said Taulapapa, who ran for 43 yards on eight carries in the 2019 loss.

“Understanding their schemes, and being able to say that we once ran against them, and hope to do it again, it’s kind of nice to get that experience under our belt,” Taulapapa said. “You know, we know how good of a team they are. And so, just looking to prepare and every which way that we can.”

Story by Chris Graham

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