CHARLOTTESVILLE — Wayne Taulapapa has always possessed great vision on the football field, the ability to spot holes in the line and burst through them.
But when he started practicing at Virginia, he realized just how quickly holes can close at the college level. More than once last year the Hawaii native said the daylight he spotted led him into thunderous shots from linebackers Jordan Mack, Robert Snyder and Zane Zandier.
“Happens to the best of us,” said Taulapapa, now a sophomore.
This spring, Taulapapa is one of five running backs trying to fill the hole left by senior Jordan Ellis, a workhorse back who logged 430 carries during the past two seasons. After playing in seven games on special teams last season, Taulapapa didn’t figure to be near the head of that pack.
Sophomore P.K. Kier, Ellis’ understudy for much of last season and a similar downhill style of runner, was the likely heir apparent. He ran the ball 26 times for 80 yards last season, a distant second behind Ellis’ 215 carries for 1,026 yards as Virginia went 8-5 and won the Belk Bowl.
But this spring, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Taulapapa – a lightly recruited two-star prospect coming out of Punahou High School in Honolulu – has emerged as a potential starter.
“Wayne is kind of an all-purpose guy,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “He’s downhill, but he’s fluid enough that we put him in passing things and we’re also putting him in blocking arrangements. We didn’t know he had the ability to just jump in there and be productive as a ball carrier, which he’s shown this spring.”
His vision combined with toughness are what coaches and teammates said set Taulapapa apart.
“His vision is great,” said senior quarterback Bryce Perkins. “He’s not afraid to get in there and drop his shoulder and run into guys. And he’s shifty too.”
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said Taulapapa has earned consideration to be the team’s starting running back with his play on the field and maturity off it.
Though he’s only a sophomore, Taulapapa is more veteran than many of his classmates. He spent two years on a mission in Nicaragua after high school and is 21 years old.
“We have three things we talk about a lot here, which are durability and consistency and production,” Mendenhall said. “All three. And that’s what he’s done. He performs every day, he’s here every day and he’s producing every day, more so right now than his competitors.”
Kier, senior Chris Sharp and juniors Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock continue to work at the position, as well, and two incoming freshmen – Seneca Milledge and Mike Hollins – will join them in the fall. It’s certainly possible Virginia will end up using a stable of ball carriers, but Anae and Mendenhall said ideally they’d identify and ride one primary back the way they did with Ellis.
“We’d like to have an All-American there,” Anae said. “And if you do, you keep him in the game and you give him the ball 25 times a game. That’s what you do. Usually when you see a rotation of sorts, two things, you don’t have a guy, so you rotate, or you have two really good players. Right now, we’re still in that discovery, finding out who our guys are.”
Virginia ranked 10th in the ACC in rushing offense last season, averaging 173.2 yards on the ground, getting the bulk of its production from Ellis and Perkins. The Cavaliers were 5-0 the past two seasons when Ellis rushed for 100 yards or more.
Despite posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Ellis dealt with injuries and didn’t hit the target goal Anae said he sets for the running back spot.
“We’re pushing for that position to get 1,500 to 1,600 yards,” Anae said. “So we missed the mark by about 500 yards. We’re hoping we can cover that ground this year and push the mark with the run game.”
Taulapapa might be the guy to help them do it.