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NFL Draft Profile: Wayne Taulapapa, RB

Does UW’s 1-Year Wonder Transfer RB have the right skills to carve out a role in the NFL?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Valero Alamo Bowl Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Next up in our 2023 NFL draft coverage we are breaking down the Huskies’ starting RB Wayne Taulapapa. After transferring in last summer from UVA where he was a multi-year starter/contributor, Taulapapa made an instant impact in UW’s revamped offense as a seasoned veteran with a well-rounded skill set. While he may not jump out as an obvious NFL talent, Taulapapa excels at the less flashy aspects of the position that teams may be looking for.

Taulapapa’s Career to Date

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

I’ve been fortunate enough to have followed Taulapapa’s career since HS where he was one of the most prolific rushers in Hawaii high school history. From his first HS snap, you could see the talent, but more impressively, you could see he understood the position. His vision, his balance, his physicality, and his disciplined and patient running style made him a ruthlessly efficient workhorse running back. After posting 3-straight 1000+ yard rushing seasons, he earned the attention of several west coast programs, but as a devout Mormon who intended to go on his 2-year mission immediately after high school, Taulapapa looked for a program that would support that decision. Naturally, BYU supported that plan, and he gave his verbal commitment to Bronco Mendenhall.

In a twist of fate, during Taulapapa’s senior year, Mendenhall abruptly left BYU to take over UVA’s football program. Fortunately, Mendenhall and his BYU-now-UVA staff extended a new offer to attend UVA that was promptly accepted (which is how a Hawaii kid ended up on the East Coast). With his football future secured, Taulapapa departed on his 2-year mission trip to Nicaragua.

Upon his return, Taulapapa quickly established himself as a special teams contributor at UVA who needed little time to reacclimate to P5 football. In his second season, he established himself as one of UVA’s lead RBs in a Air Raid offense that featured a dynamic rushing threat at QB. Much like Richard Newton at UW, Taulapapa earned a reputation as a talented short yardage back who could earn the tough yardage (he scored 12 TDs in his first season in the RB rotation). However, as his UVA career progressed and the offense evolved, Taulapapa’s role in the offense shrank, and a fresh start made sense.

After graduating from UVA, Taulapapa had his COVID season of eligibility remaining, so he hit the transfer portal as a grad transfer and decided that UW was an ideal situation for him. Just months on the job, Kalen DeBoer and his UW staff was rebuilding a RB room that was decimated by injuries, graduations, and transfers, all while retooling the room to suit their more pass-heavy offense. Taulapapa’s experience in an Air Raid offense made it a perfect fit.

In his one season at UW, Taulapapa had over 1100 all-purpose yards and 12 TDs while sharing the backfield with several other talented RBs. While he only topped 100 yards four times last season, he was quietly efficient and got better as the season progressed, ending the season on a 3-game streak of 100+ yard performances and at a 9 yards/carry clip.

Athletic Profile & On-Field Production

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Taulapapa, much like former UW RB Myles Gaskin, doesn’t have freakish NFL-caliber athletic traits, but he checks all of the boxes. Since he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, we’ll have to rely on last season’s roster listing and the reported measurements/testing from UW’s pro day. Listed this past season at 5’11” and 207lbs, he would land somewhere in the middle of the pack in the NFL for his size. It was reported that he ran a 4.51u 40 time at his pro day, and while it again would’ve put him in the middle of the RB pack at the combine, 40 times and pure track speed are not the best barometer for future success. Gaskin ran a 4.58 and on-field speedster Salvon Ahmed ran a 4.62, both at a similar weight. Both have also found NFL success despite relatively average measurements and testing.

As far as Taulapapa’s on-field traits, he isn’t a flashy rusher. Even on UW’s 2022 team, Taulapapa was probably their 2nd or 3rd best pure rusher. He is effective when working behind a well-orchestrated zone blocking OL where he can read the defensive flow, make his cuts, and get to the second level, but he isn’t the type of back that will get the highlight yardage. He doesn’t quite have the explosive stop-start agility to make defenders miss in the hole, and he won’t be running through NFL LBs, but he does run with good pad level in the hole and has an innate ability to avoid square tackles where he can glance off defenders for a few extra yards.

Despite spending his entire career in pass-heavy offenses, Taulapapa also isn’t your typical Air Raid receiving back. He can catch outlet passes and has flashed decent hands downfield, but he is too inconsistent to be a featured receiving threat at the next level. His overall lack of explosiveness also limits his use as a weapon in space on designed passes (like slip screens). However, one area of the passing game where he excels is in pass protection. While not as glamorous due to its lack of box score stats, Taulapapa’s consistent and effective pass protection in a pass-heavy offense is what earned him his starting role. UW regularly used 6-man protections where Taulapapa was asked to identify and pick up blitzers across the whole formation, and his efforts contributed to a unit that gave up the second fewest sacks in the country last year.

Draft & NFL Career Projection

In my opinion, Taulapapa does not possess the dynamic talents that NFL teams prioritize when making their draft selections, and I do not think that he will hear his name get called on draft night. That being said, he may find himself as a priority UDFA that gets a camp invite. For players in the day 3 or UDFA range, being a priority UDFA with a couple of options is sometimes a better route since it allows the player to pick their destination. Hopefully one with a specific need.

Taulapapa might be able to stick on a roster that has a 3rd down back need in their rotation and depth on their special teams unit. Teams often look for high ceiling athletes that can fill in on special teams while they develop into depth players on offense or defense, but a pass protector at RB may be a unique enough skill set that it earns him a chance to show off untapped talents.