Hawaii Grown: Virginia’s top running back Wayne Taulapapa takes off
Wayne Taulapapa still puts time in on special teams despite being Virginia’s top running back.
These days, there are two big V’s in Wayne Taulapapa’s life. The first is Virginia, where he is rocking and rolling as the starting running back.
The second is value — as in value added. Taulapapa is constantly looking at ways he can contribute. And that is a marked difference between Taulapapa, the man playing for the Cavaliers, and Taulapapa, the boy who played for Punahou.
“Coming to college, I understand more about the value you can bring — whether it’s blocking, passing or running,” he said by phone last week. “The more you can do, the more value you can add. I bring it in the way I block for my quarterback and by being a viable option as a pass-catcher, a lot of special teams. That’s something I did not do in high school and I did not know how much of a game-changer special teams is. Doing the small parts is what ultimately makes every play.”
Taulapapa graduated from Punahou in 2016 after a stellar career with the Buffanblu that included two appearances in the Division I championship game. After that, he went on a church mission for two years and has since put the work in to nestle into the starting running back role for the Cavaliers.
As a freshman last year, Taulapapa played a lot on special teams. He continues to do so.
“Last year, I was on kickoff and kickoff return and punt and punt return teams,” he said. “I was the bullet, hunting for the ball on kickoffs, a punt forcer (making sure there are no fakes) on punt returns and a blocker. This year, I’m still on kickoff and kick return teams.”
When drills began in preparation for the 2019 season, Taulapapa had no idea he would be elevated to starting running back.
“My job in spring ball was to block,” he said. “My one opportunity to run in practice in a scrimmage, I did fairly well and the coaches were pleased. Every day after that, I got runs in. Then, I just did whatever I could to help the offense and put my head down and worked at it for them to know that I could be relied on to run the ball, and stay as consistent as possible. That’s how I made my way up, being consistent.”
On his church mission, Taulapapa went to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
“It allowed me to grow and learn about myself,” he said. “I learned that kindness and serving others goes a long way. One lady, whose daughter wanted us to come by and teach, kept chasing us away every day. She even threw rocks our way. By the fifth time we went, she was fixing her roof and we asked if she needed help. She let us help and stay. It was a great time and that type of thing was a reoccurring story.”
The whole time he was away, Taulapapa missed playing the sport he loves.
“Soccer is the main sport over there, so you don’t hear much about football,” he said. “Every day, I did something related to the game — push-ups, sit-ups, ladders. It kept me physically in it. If anything, being away, made me more hungrier and dedicated to football.”
And he was too far away to keep proper tabs on all the local ballers doing well in college.
“Guys I played against — Tua (Tagovailoa), (McKenzie) Milton, (Vavae) Malepeai, (Dayton) Furuta, Mika Tafua, (Bradlee) Anae, Alohi Gilman, Marist (Liufau), Noa Sua-Godinet, to name a few. The boys in the 808 are representing.
“It’s awesome to see another Polynesian, Vavae Malepeai, representing well (at USC) at running back on the West Coast. I’m always checking on stats and see how those guys are doing.”
Playing in eight of Virginia’s nine games, Taulapapa has rushed for 362 yards on 87 carries with nine touchdowns. The Cavaliers (6-3) are in first place in the ACC Coastal division and are vying for a spot in the league championship contest and a bowl game.
Despite losing to Mililani 53-45 for the state title in 2014, Taulapapa remembers that game as his biggest high school highlight. He rushed for 260 yards with three TDs in that one.
“That was probably my best game and I remember fighting to the very end,” he said. “Mililani was just a really good team.”
A year earlier, Taulapapa ran for 74 yards and a TD in Punahou’s 28-22 victory over Mililani for the state crown.
In three years as Punahou’s starting running back, he rushed for 3,279 yards with 52 TDs.