Before he walked on at Cal in 2004, Will Ta’ufo’ou didn’t have a true appreciation for the dirty, painful and often overlooked job that fullbacks do.
Ta’ufo’ou (pronounced tau-FOE-oh) was a running back and linebacker at St. Francis High School where he was the West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year as a senior. He played football in the spotlight, hearing instant positive feedback from fans whenever he broke loose for a long run.
Now he does most of his work in the relative shadows, launching his body at defensive linemen or linebackers then watching Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen run to glory.
“For us fullbacks, we’re like an undercover job,” Ta’ufo’ou said Tuesday during Cal’s weekly media luncheon. “We do everything for our teammates. We do it for our self-pride.
“I think I’ve learned to have a different appreciation for what I do. Before, I didn’t really understand the position of fullback, coming from high school where I got the ball a lot more. And now I look at blocking like that one block could be what springs the run. It’s a great feeling to see Jahvid behind me and he sprints right past me on the left side or the right side.”
Ta’ufo’ou just might have some of his cover blown if Best and Vereen keep breaking long runs and putting up huge rushing numbers.
Best has already rushed for 328 yards and is averaging 155.5 yards per game, tops in the Pac-10. He had touchdown runs of 80 and 86 yards last week against Washington State. Vereen broke an 81-yard touchdown run in Cal’s season-opening win over Michigan State and is averaging 10.1 yards per carry.
Best and Vereen give Ta’ufo’ou plenty of credit for the role he plays in their success. Even the most casual football fans at Memorial Stadium might start zeroing in on the 5-foot-11, 253-pound Ta’ufo’ou because he’s the player Best and Vereen usually follow into the fray.
“He’s the one that either makes the play probably go or it doesn’t,” Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. “He has the (isolation) block with either a lineman or a ’backer. He takes them on and they’re going full speed at each other. He’s doing his job.
“He’s getting in the way, making them take a different route. He’s unbelievable. He’s a stud. Pass blocking-wise, too. You know when he’s back there you don’t have to worry about someone coming free to hit you.”
With the widespread use of the spread offense in college football, the position of fullback has become an endangered species for many teams. But not at Cal, which runs a more traditional attack that demands a fullback, especially in the running game.
“There’s no question that in our game the fullback plays a huge role,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “And Will is so smart and has such a great feel for what he does. And then once he gets there he’s very physical. … Will is instrumental at the point of attack.”
Ta’ufo’ou has carried only one time this season, gaining a lone yard, and 13 times in his career for 55 yards. But he caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Riley against Michigan State, the first touchdown of his career.
“I think there are a few more plays where I’ve been in the flat,” said Ta’ufo’ou, a redshirt senior. “I think for me it’s exciting. I think it’s just new tools for the offense. It’s always fun to run the ball.”
It’s also fun for Ta’ufo’ou to play relatively pain-free after last season’s injury hat trick. He suffered three major injuries – two sprained knee ligaments and a high ankle sprain. One injury happened early in the season, one in the middle and one toward the end.
“I think that was one of the harder things I’ve been through,” he said. “I felt like I could never catch a break.”
Despite the injuries and pain, Ta’ufo’ou missed only two games.
There’s no question that Tedford appreciates Ta’ufo’ou’s toughness and the dirty work he does for Cal. That doesn’t mean he’s going to start calling his number.
“We were talking about handing him the ball and how many yards he gained in high school and all that,” Tedford said. “But that was about 40 pounds ago. He carried the ball a lot in high school and did a nice job.
“He was a walk-on and earned a scholarship. Obviously he’s become more physical. He’s a great blocker and catches the ball, too. And he understands his role here, understands he’s a blocker.”
And now Ta’ufo’ou even appreciates the role.