Zion Tupuola-Fetui showed up on the first University of Washington depth chart last month as a reserve outside linebacker.
As a replacement to spell senior starter Ryan Bowman.
Someone positioned for limited minutes.
Compared to others, an afterthought.
Five days before the Huskies were supposed to open their long-delayed football season at California, a game that ultimately would be cancelled, the UW coaching staff determined Tupuola-Fetui would be Bowman's understudy.
Those players were listed opposite sophomore Laiatu Latu and true freshman Sav'ell Smalls, who were stacked 1-2 at the other outside backer position.
So much for that careful preseason evaluation. Almost nothing has held up since. This is both a good and a bad thing.
Enter the man they call ZTF.
Last Saturday against Utah, neither Bowman nor Laiatu were in uniform, presumably injured or ill from the pandemic, though the school no longer explains player absences except in the rarest of instances. For Laiatu, he's been on a season-long furlough for reasons unknown.
Tupuola-Fetui, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore from Pearl City, Hawaii — yes, his backyard is Pearl Harbor, one of the most infamous places on the planet — initially stepped in for Laiatu in week 2 and took this opportunity and ran with it, turning into a college football sensation.
Instead of waiting for someone to get tired for him to draw extended minutes, ZTF leads the nation in sack average after collecting 2, 2 and 3 in his three outings (2.3 per game). He's on a statistical surge extraordinary for any player — think Ken Griffey Jr. hitting home runs in eight consecutive games — let alone one who just became a starter for the first time in his career.
"He's very, very powerful," UW coach Jimmy Lake marveled. "He can run that tackle back into the quarterback. So when he sets that up with his power, all of a sudden they worry about his power and then he slips you and goes on the edge, and it gets really tricky for those offensive linemen."
Before the season, the coaches were praising ZTF as a much improved player. But he still wasn't a starter.
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, shown in the video below, was more startled by seeing Tupuola-Fetui step on a scale and hit 278 pounds. He promised the linebacker would shed some of it. He wasn't totally displeased. More incredulous.
"I saw the weight the other day and it said something like 278 and my jaw dropped," the coach said. "He's not looking like a 278-pounder. We're dropping him into coverage. He's fluid. He's running well. but he's going to lose some of that weight. I think that was a little bit of pandemic buffet issues. But he looks good."
While the Huskies have had prolific pass rushers before — players such as Donald Jones, Andy Mason and Hau'oli Kikaha quickly come to mind — ZTF decidedly brings his own style.
He mixes his massive size with uncanny speed, something more reminiscent of what All-American defensive tackle Steve Emtman did during the Huskies' 1991 national championship run, only he's faster. Emtman used flat-out power to raise havoc.
Tupuola-Fetui uses both power and speed to bag a quarterback. He took on two guys late in the Utah game and just pushed both of them out of his way before sacking Utes quarterback Jake Bentley. He skirts around others without much trouble.
"This is a big, powerful man that can move and run," Lake said, "and he's slippery."
Entering tomorrow's Stanford game at Husky Stadium, ZTF likely will draw extra attention because he's been so disruptive. You can't ignore him. In the 24-21 victory over Utah, he chalked up 6 tackles, including 3 tackles for loss, all sacks, and forced a fumble and returned another for 29 yards.
In the aftermath, he twice was named national Defensive Player of the Week. He's been selected Pac-23 Defensive Lineman of Week each of the past three weeks.
Noticeable in his shocking bleached-blond hair, he's taken all of this recognition in stride since his first start and earliest success. He doesn't call any attention to himself. He does it with his play, but he shares the accolades and credit with everyone else around him.
"We keep telling each other we were built for moments like this," ZTF said after a season-opening 27-21 victory over Oregon State. "As a room, as a defense, for us to come through was just an incredible feeling. It was kind of the juice we needed when things were iffy."
That pretty much sums up his individual journey so far, as well. When he temporarily was that Husky back-up.
So what's next for him against the Cardinal? Another 2-sack or more game?
"He's on a hot streak right now," Lake said. "I don't know if I've seen a three-game stretch with that stat line of forced fumbles, the sacks, the tackles. He's come to work every week."
There's no word on whether Laiatu Latu or Ryan Bowman will be available to play this week against Stanford. No matter.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui is already in a stance, revving his engine, ready to introduce himself to yet another quarterback and sack him like so many groceries.
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