Zion Tupuola-Fetui ready to make plays for Washington defense: ‘He’s a problem’

SEATTLE — If you only watched Zion Tupuola-Fetui during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic season, identifying him at Washington’s preseason camp might require a double-take — until the ball is snapped, anyway. There’s no mistaking ZTF once he’s in motion, bending and angling his body in ways that few others can.

Standing still, however, waiting to pounce? He looks pretty slim, relative to his listed frame of 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds two years ago (although he probably never weighed quite that much on a consistent basis). Tupuola-Fetui, a fifth-year junior, now checks in somewhere between 250 and 255, although his listed weight of 249 is lighter even than his true freshman roster weight of 253. He’s nearly 16 months clear of the torn Achilles that shortened his 2021 season to five games. And while there is no guarantee that he’ll tally seven sacks in any three-game span this year — as he did in the first three games of 2020, logging All-America recognition in the process — he may well be putting up similar numbers in practice so far.

“I think I’m where I want to be. I feel good. I feel light,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I don’t feel like it’s getting in the way of anything. I’m flying around. I’m playing the run. I’m sturdy. I really like this weight. The weight loss just came from not being as active (after surgery). I only had one leg. I feel like I cut off bad weight and was able to build from that into this 250, 255 frame that I’m wearing now.”

Hardly a series goes by without ZTF burning past a tackle and pressuring the quarterback. “He’s a problem,” head coach Kalen DeBoer said, observing that “practice two, he was in the backfield every play.”

If there were any questions about whether he might be slowed by the Achilles injury, Tupuola-Fetui is answering them to whatever degree might be possible in early August.

“He’s been able to make all the cuts,” edges coach Eric Schmidt said. “If there’s a strength of his — his upper body, the way he contorts it, how slippery he is getting guys’ hands off him — that’s probably what he does the best. He’s put himself in a lot of radical angles and been able to stay on his feet and stay healthy.”

Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer’s first game with the Huskies is Sept. 3 against Kent State. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Among Tupuola-Fetui’s first questions to the medical staff after his spring 2021 injury: Even if he came back healthy, was there a part of his game that might still suffer from having endured such an injury?

“They told me it was my explosiveness,” he said, “so as soon as I could run, that’s something I put a focal point on.”

Also: “I kind of know what the book says on me — it says I don’t play the run. I’ve definitely been just working on getting stronger. I’ve always felt like I’ve played the run, so I’ve just got to prove that to whoever doubts that part of me.”

Schmidt agreed: “He can’t be a niche guy, where it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re just rushing the passer and that’s what you’re good at.’ … We need him to be a three-down guy.”

There is one other motivating factor, and that is simply trying to win a starting job, which is, perhaps surprisingly, no guarantee. Coaches have made clear they like the “big three” atop the depth chart at edge rusher — ZTF, senior Jeremiah Martin and fourth-year sophomore Bralen Trice — but only two of those players will start, and it hasn’t always been ZTF with the first team. Trice, in particular, earned rave reviews in the spring, and Martin, a transfer from Texas A&M, surprised coaches with his strength and physicality at the point of contact, particularly against the run.

“Everybody has a different skill set,” Martin said. “I’m confident in everybody in that room, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to get a lot of playing time.”

“I want to start, but it’s not my call,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “If I come off the bench, it’s what I have to do to help this team win. I feel as healthy as I’ve been, I feel as strong as I’ve been, I’m playing the best ball, and that’s all I can do, just go out there and continue to put that on tape.”

Schmidt breaks it down like this: Tupuola-Fetui is a standout pass rusher. Martin’s best asset is his strength, and he deploys it best against the run. Trice, he says, is a blend of both: “He’s a smooth athlete that’s really powerful, and he’s probably close to 270 pounds right now.”

“At the end of the day, they want to win football games,” Schmidt said. There’s a level of trust there. They’re smart enough football guys to understand, situationally, what they’re good at and maybe what somebody else is good at and where they should be leading and where they should be following.

“Ultimately, all of those guys are going to play a lot of football for us. After that is where we’ve really got to start figuring out where the next reps are coming from in our depth chart.”

About that: Former five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls is probably practicing better than at any point in his young career, logging a couple of sacks and showing up in the backfield every now and then. He needs to be more consistent, Schmidt said: “He’s a guy that he’ll show up, and you’ll be like, ‘Wow, look at that play,’ and then it might be three or four plays like, ‘Hey, where was Sav’ell?’ The good part is … he’s not showing up from the negative point of view.”

The Huskies also gave some first- and second-team reps Tuesday to junior-college transfer Sekai Afoa-Asoau, and redshirt freshman Maurice Heims gets some run, too. Beyond the “big three,” the Huskies need reliable depth at a position Schmidt expects to produce at a high level.

“It’s really a big play position,” he said. “You’re not going to lead our team in tackles. We’re not asking you to do that. But you should be up in the conference and on our team in sacks, tackles for loss, batted balls, forced fumbles, stuff like that.”

Here’s what else to know about the Huskies after their fifth practice of camp:

• Working with the No. 1 offense during a two-minute drill late in practice, Michael Penix Jr. threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Rome Odunze against cornerback Davon Banks. The throw capped a possession that also included first-down completions to Ja’Lynn Polk and tight end Devin Culp. On the final series of practice, Kuao Peihopa and Smalls each sacked Dylan Morris.

• Penix also completed a pass that Jalen McMillan turned into about a 40-yard gain during a team period, and Will Nixon scored on a 4-yard run on the next play.

• Not saying I think Alex Cook or Asa Turner are in danger of losing their jobs, but Vincent Nunley is a guy I keep noticing at safety. He seems to get his hands on the ball a lot.

• Could be wrong, but I believe this was the first time Banks has taken snaps with the No. 1 defense. He currently leads the team in interceptions during camp.

• Several NFL scouts were in attendance Tuesday. Asked if he noticed them, ZTF remarked: “I try not to, but they’re not wearing purple and gold, so they stick out a little bit.”

(Photo of Zion Tupuola-Fetui: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)


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