Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa is competing to be the Cavaliers’ starting running back this fall.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.

The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names.

Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.

In the early weeks of spring workouts, Virginia running backs coach Mark Atuaia said sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa was swimming in new information and just trying to keep his head above water.

Taulapapa missed his first spring on Grounds while serving a two-year LDS mission in Nicaragua. This year was his full-on introduction to the Cavaliers’ offseason process, but after the spring game, Virginia’s coaches were singing a different tune.

Number 14 in our countdown of 19 UVa players to watch in 2019 is Taulapapa, who burst onto the scene this spring and leads the pack to replace former workhorse Jordan Ellis heading into fall camp.

Tale of the tape

Height: 5-9

Weight: 210

Hometown: Laie, Hawaii

Last season: Taulapapa joined the team in the summer and appeared in seven games, all on special teams.

Depth at the position: PK Kier may still prove to be Jordan Ellis’ heir apparent, but this spring, Taulapapa threw his name into the hat to become the Cavaliers’ workhorse running back. He’s going to compete with Kier, fullback Jamari Peacock and potentially freshman Mike Hollins for carries between the tackles.

Number to know: 3,279. In three years as a starter at Punahou High School, Taulapapa racked up 3,279 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns. In 2013, he was part of a state championship run, and in 2014, Punahou finished as state runner-up.

Outlook: Regardless of who starts, Taulapapa’s emergence gives Virginia another running back with the stature to carry the ball 15 or 20 times a game. As physically demanding as that is, especially at the Power 5 level, having multiple options is the norm these days. Fellow running backs LaMont Atkins, Chris Sharpe and freshman Seneca Milledge will do most of their damage outside the tackles.

Running hard

Call it the Bryce Perkins effect, but Virginia ran the ball better last season than the Cavaliers have in a decade and a half. Last season, UVa averaged 173.2 rushing yards a game, which is the program’s most since 2004 when Alvin Pearman and Wally Lundy led the way to 242.8 yards a game.

The Wahoos’ 19 rushing touchdowns last fall were the most since 2007 when Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson combined for 13 of the Cavaliers’ 22.

Last season, Perkins, Virginia’s dual-treat quarterback, accounted for 923 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, but Ellis carried the ball at a career-high 4.8 yards per clip.

It was often his physical presence between the tackles that opened things up and allowed Perkins to be creative on the outside.

The Cavaliers need that downhill runner to emerge again this fall, and Taulapapa and Kier are the most likely options. But don’t count out Peacock — a big back, who has been in the system for three years now — or Hollins, whose highlights on hudl.com are full of violent collisions, the majority of which he comes out on the winning end of.

Polynesian link

Brigham Young tapped into the Pacific islands to find football players long before Bronco Mendenhall came along. One such example is Famika Anea, who played at BYU in 1954-55 and is the father of current UVa offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Virginia’s defensive line coach Vic So’oto (2005-10) is a more recent example.

Mendenhall and his staff continued the Cougars’ success in recruiting Polynesian players, and the pipeline remains as strong as ever.

Last season, four BYU players were on the Polynesian football player of the year watch list.

Taulapapa is one of the early examples of that influence extending to Charlottesville. Sophomore defensive end Aaron Faumui is another.

He hails from Kapolei, Hawaii, and though he’s from Utah, freshman linebacker Jairus Satiu is another reminder that Mendenhall and his current staff still have a recruiting presence in Polynesia.

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