By Lauren Kirschman | McClatchy News Service
SEATTLE — When Pearl City High School head coach Robin Kami says Zion Tupuola-Fetui did everything on the high school football field, he means everything.
Tupuola-Fetui was primarily a defensive end. But when the offense took the field, he sometimes trotted out as a wide receiver. Kami brought him in specifically to block field goals and kicks. Oh, and he could throw the ball, too. That meant a few trick plays were in the mix, like double passes.
Now a redshirt sophomore outside linebacker for Washington, Tupuola-Fetui has been this season’s breakout performer. But before Tupuola-Fetui really started drawing attention from college recruiters, Kami took him to a 7-on-7 pylon in Las Vegas, and he had a plan to get his star player more exposure.
“We played him at wide receiver,” Kami said during a phone interview on Monday. “He did so well up there in Vegas. He scored a lot of touchdowns a big guy like him who could catch and run. From after the game in Vegas [on], I took phone calls from a lot of people. They thought he was playing tight end. And I said no, that’s not even his primary position. He’s a defensive end.”
UW extended Tupuola-Fetui’s first offer in February 2017. He signed in December, choosing the Huskies over offers from Cal, Oregon, Oregon State and Hawaii, among others.
Right about now, UW is certainly glad he did.
Tupuola-Fetui played two games for UW as a freshman before redshirting. He played sparingly in 12 games in 2019, finishing the year with nine total tackles.
And then 2020
And then the 2020 season started.
Even though Tupuola-Fetui was listed as a backup, he started in place of Laiatu Latu who has yet to appear in a game this season in the season opener against Oregon State. Through three games, Tupuola-Fetui has recorded 13 tackles, seven tackles for loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
He leads the country with 2.3 sacks per contest and ranks second with 1.0 forced fumble, and he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week after every game.
“I’m just glad that my success is also translating into team success,” Tupuola-Fetui said after UW’s win over Utah on Saturday. “I was telling [defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski] earlier this week, ‘All these awards are great. But if they gave me an award on a week when we lost, I definitely wouldn’t want to accept it.’ I’m just thankful that we as a team are balling. Every single one on this team is contributing.”
UW head coach Jimmy Lake will never say he quite predicted these kind of numbers, but he’s not surprised by Tupuola-Fetui’s success. He sees it in practice. Tupuola-Fetui has made a habit out of harassing the quarterbacks, and Lake has to remind him not to get quite so close.
“Obviously, we have the gold jerseys on our quarterbacks and you can’t touch them,” Lake said. “But every day, it was just like this guy is breathing down all of our quarterbacks’ necks. You could just tell that we was going to do it on game day.”
Senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman took notice of Tupuola-Fetui from the beginning.
“Since he was a freshman, it’s always been like, that guy’s got the juice,” Bowman said. “We’ve always known that. It was just a matter of time for him to get on the field and display it. You guys are witnessing that right now.”
‘That’s your ticket through life’
Count Kami among those who didn’t need to be convinced.
Tupuola-Fetui could have played varsity football as a freshman, but Kami waited until he was a sophomore to call him up. Once he got the opportunity, he made an immediate impact just like he has at UW.
And Tupuola-Fetui didn’t just excel at football in high school. He played volleyball, where he helped Pearl City win its first OIA Division II boys volleyball championship in 2018. If that wasn’t enough, he also paddled canoe.
Because Tupuola-Fetui was balancing three sports, he didn’t spend as much time in the weight room as Kami and the coaching staff would’ve liked. But Kami knew once Tupuola-Fetui got to college once was living and breathing football that would all change.
And change it did. As a freshman, Tupuola-Fetui was listed at 6-foot-3 and 253 pounds. He’s now at 280. Even though he doesn’t move like he’s 27 pounds heavier “He looks good,” Kwiatkowski said during fall camp. ‘When we’re dropping him in coverage, he’s fluid. He’s running well.” the added strength led to Tupuola-Fetui’s breakout season.
And Kami? He predicted all of it.
“I told him, once you get into college, you’re going to gain 50 to 70 pounds,” Kami said. “You’re going to get big. You’re going to get strong. You’re going to get faster because you’re going to eat good, you’re going to work out seven days a week, you’re going to hit the weight room.
“I told him once you get to college you’re just going to excel because that’s all you can play, one sport. 24/7 play football and that’s your ticket to the NFL. That’s your ticket through life.”
‘The sky’s the limit’
As Tupuola-Fetui continues to dominate Pac-12 offenses, he has the full attention of his hometown. Pearl City has a population of 26,471, and the school is small enough that players aren’t expected to play Division I college football.
“He just continues to take his game to the next level and I’m excited to watch him come to work … in practice,” Lake said. “I wish you guys could see it because it’s just a beautiful thing to watch when a player is just constantly trying to improve himself and take the next step in his game. Who knows where he’s going to take his game? The sky’s the limit.”