How far can Alameda Ta'amu carry Huskies defense in 2011?
The former Parade All-American out of Rainier Beach High has become one of the anchors of what should be a vastly improved Washington defense.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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First, Alameda Ta'amu had to figure out how to carry the weight of added responsibility.
Once he did, the unwanted pounds on his body began to drip off.
And feeling more grounded off the field, but lighter on it, the University of Washington defensive tackle began last year to fulfill the vast potential everyone always envisioned.
"Really, he can be as good as he wants to be," said UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt of Ta'amu, who is an unquestioned anchor of the Huskies defense as the team conducts spring drills this month in preparation for the 2011 season.
Ta'amu gave evidence to that during the 2010 Holiday Bowl when he recovered a fumble that led to UW's first touchdown in a 19-7 victory, then forced a holding call in the end zone for a safety and Washington's final points. That came on the heels of a similarly standout performance in the Apple Cup.
"You look at the last two games, he basically dominated those two games," said UW defensive-line coach Johnny Nansen. "And that's the challenge. That's what I tell him every day in the huddle, 'Hey, if you are going to be an All-American, you've got to play like it and push.' And I think he is starting to respond and it's a joy to coach him."
Ta'amu admits there were times earlier in his career when his focus wavered.
A graduate of Rainier Beach High, he became a father in the spring of his freshman year at UW, a daughter named Lillyana. A support group including his family and that of his daughter's mother helps him juggle parenting chores. But the truth of fatherhood required some adjusting.
"I was going through a lot my sophomore year," he said. "That was probably the worst time, just trying to fit another life in with your own life. I figured I had to grow up fast and throw away my kid ways coming out of high school."
As tough as it was, he also credits his daughter's birth with making him stay on course.
"That was a big motivation for me," he said. "A lot of people were saying I wouldn't finish college — that was a big motivation for me, to do it for my baby."
The end of his high-school career presented another challenge. He suffered a broken foot as a senior, causing him to miss his final games and contribute to unwanted weight gain.
Listed at 348 pounds when he signed with UW, he says he was more like 380.
"I broke my foot in high school and just laid back and ate and didn't realize how big I was getting," he said. "I didn't know I was that big until I stepped on a scale and was like 'whoa.' "
He then adds, with his typical good nature, "The scale said to step off."
Despite his less-than-optimum shape, he was a regular on the line as a true freshman in 2008, after which Tyrone Willingham was fired and Steve Sarkisian hired. Getting Ta'amu in condition was among the first goals for Sarkisian and staff, though that required another adjustment for Ta'amu.
"At first it was like 'Oh, these guys hate me. They are always telling me to do this, do that,' " he said. "But now I'm losing weight and I feel like I am doing more things that I didn't think I could do. You see why they get on you, because you are a good player, and the only thing you can do is give your skills back to them on the field."
He was at 337 for the Holiday Bowl, when he turned in the play that may have most defined UW's upset, blasting through the Nebraska offensive line to force a holding penalty in the end zone.
But where he once might have been satisfied with that moment, he says now he hopes it's just a beginning.
"Right after the game I couldn't wait to watch the film," he said. "I watched it a couple of times but then said I shouldn't be excited to watch that anymore — that should be the way I play every game. Hopefully I can do something way better than I did in the Holiday Bowl during the season."
That's the wish of the coaches, as well, who hope a veteran line — led by Ta'amu and fellow senior Everrette Thompson and rising star sophomore end Hau'oli Jamora — can continue the defensive revival that led to a season-ending four-game winning streak.
Nansen said his expectation for Ta'amu this year is to be "an all-conference player," something UW hasn't had on the defensive line since Larry Tripplett in 2001.
"It's just 'Meda growing up as a football player," Nansen said. "He knows the importance (of it) and being a dad too is helping him on the football field and motivating him. You see it in his workouts, and now in practice he is carrying it on."
He's now down to 330 pounds, which he calls his ideal weight.
That size, and his Holiday Bowl performance, already have Ta'amu on the NFL's radar — NFLDraftScout.com rates him as the No. 6 defensive tackle available for the 2012 draft.
Ta'amu admits he once figured the NFL was a given, saying with a laugh that "in middle school, I thought I was going to be the first one to go straight out of high school. But I got reality my senior year."
Maturity has begun to follow, reflected in the way he now greets visions of the NFL.
"Hopefully one day, if I get there, it will be a good blessing for me and my family," he said.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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