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ALAMEDA TA'AMU TOOK SEVERAL ANGRY, EXPLOSIVE STRIDES AND DISPOSED OF FOUR—count 'em, four—Cornhuskers before charging toward quarterback Taylor Martinez. Once Ta'amu had him in his grip, he bear-hugged him, violently spun him and body-slammed the QB to the ground. The ground shook. Martinez never stood a chance.
And that was one of Ta'amu's more gentle tackles. The one-man wrecking crew who has lined up every Saturday on the Huskies' D-line for the last three autumns has made a habit of engulfing running backs and quarterbacks just the way he did Martinez in last year's Holiday Bowl. In starting 37 games for UW, Ta'amu, a 6' 3", 330-pound bulldozer from Rainier Beach (Wash.) High, has produced 79 tackles—as well as roughly 1,371 bruised shoulders, legs and arms of opposing players. "He had a tremendous stretch run to end last year," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian says, "and we couldn't block him during spring ball either."
Even against his own teammates, Ta'amu knows just one speed: Go. Washington's intrasquad scrimmages in April were full of monster hits from Ta'amu. And last season against eventual national runner-up Oregon he had a season-high seven tackles, then matched that a week later against Cal. Two quarters before that 10-yard sack of Nebraska's Martinez, Ta'amu picked up a fumble and scampered 14 yards to set up a Huskies touchdown.
But his time in Seattle hasn't been all gravy. Gravy may have actually been the problem. Ta'amu struggled to keep his weight down when he arrived on campus in 2008; he ballooned to nearly 375 pounds (though he was never listed higher than 348) in his freshman year and struggled to maintain a healthy playing weight. By sophomore year he was down to 345, then played last season at his current weight, 330. But the transformation took time. He ate salad and salmon. Less red meat. Coaches made him run extra after practice. Eventually he realized that he wouldn't have to keep running those grueling sprints if he could keep his weight down. So he did, and the difference on the field is significant. "I can last longer," Ta'amu told The Seattle Times. "More than five plays." This year he's in even better shape than he was last season. "He looks great," Sarkisian says. "He's strong and quick and agile for a big man. All that came from him embracing the work ethic needed to get where he is now."
Where he is now is smack-dab in the middle of a defense that will largely determine the fate of the 2011 Huskies season. UW's scheme on D employs Ta'amu in several different spots, but he prefers noseguard. "He loves to be right up on that center," Sarkisian says. "Loves those one-on-one matchups." But as Ta'amu has seen, those one-on-one matchups become one-on-two, -three and even -four as blockers try to fend him off. No matter. With the quickness in Ta'amu's hands and feet, few Pac-12 teams will have an answer for the former high school shot-putter who finished fourth in the state as a junior.
Sarkisian says that Ta'amu, one of several Polynesian players on the Huskies' roster, has grown into a leader. ("He's a real fatherly figure to those guys," he says.) "We're playing better because of him," the coach says. "He's really had an impact on us changing as a program."
That's an impact that opposing quarterbacks have surely felt.