Sometime during Saturday night’s Washington-UCLA football game, there’s a good chance Husky Stadium public-address announcer Eric Rasmussen will lean into his microphone from his perch high above the field and make the following pronouncement:
“Now at outside linebacker for the Huskies, Zion Tu-u-u-p-p-p-u-o-o-o-l-l-l-a-a-a-Fetui!”
Cue a thundering ovation from the 50,000-plus in the metal stands willing to brave rain and the night chill coming off Lake Washington, and who still believe in Jimmy Lake.
For two weeks now, the Huskies coach provided teasing updates on the prolific edge rusher known as ZTF, as if Lake seeks to will his game-changer into a triumphant return from surgery that fixed his Achilles tendon torn seven months earlier.
“He’s week to week.”
“He’s practicing in full pads.”
“He looks great.”
What Lake didn’t share is how much he needs this high-spirited defender back on the field against the Bruins (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) to perk up his underachieving team (2-3, 1-1) and make it the winner that everyone expected.
Some NFL analysts project the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Tupuola-Fetui as the top selection on the Washington roster, more elevated than CB Trent McDuffie, OT Jaxson Kirkland and TE Cade Otton.
Lake has made the possibility of ZTF playing such a strong storyline, it’s hard to fathom the sophomore from Pearl City, Hawaii — he grew up looking out upon one of the world’s most famous battle scenes — not getting into the game for at least a handful of snaps.
“He’s making progress,” outside linebackers Ikaika Malloe said this week. “But I don’t know that answer.”
While the repaired tendon is the paramount physical concern, Tupuola-Fetui will return 15-20 pounds lighter than in 2020, when he had seven sacks in four games (leading the nation in sacks per game). The orange-haired one was inspired to change his body shape to something leaner, after witnessing former teammate and current NFL rookie Joe Tryon undergo a similar transformation that made him a pro success for Tampa Bay.
The following are three imagined scenarios involving the return of the former first-team All-Pac-12 selection on a cool, wet night against a good team:
ZTF enters the game late in the second quarter, with the Huskies trailing 14-7 and urgently in need of a stop, and helps force a 3-and-out series — a test drive. He drops UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and retreats to the sideline to a second ovation.
Yet that’s it. The coaching staff is unwilling to gamble on the health of a player who likely won’t throttle back and ease himself in. At the same time, he might not have a lot to offer in the way of endurance.
“Can’t expect a kid coming off an Achilles tendon tear to immediately return back to form,” former UW RB Lee Neal cautioned fans this week on social media. “You have guys on here thinking we are going to get the same kid he was prior to getting hurt.”
Knowing Tupuola-Fetui is coming out of a seven-month recovery that normally takes up to 10 months, Lake instead sends him in early in the fourth quarter trailing 20-7, to shake things up.
Again, ZTF plays a single series. This one lasts 10 plays before it ends abruptly with a strip-sack of Thompson-Robinson. ZTF takes a sweeping bow as he exits.
“The UCLA fumble caused and recovered by Tupuola-Fetui!” Rasmussen bellows.
The least popular, but safest option is Tupuola-Fetui coming out in uniform, going through warm-ups and settling in on the sideline to watch his team win, 21-20. He isn’t needed. The coaches have no desire to risk rushing him into action.
The crowd chants ZTF’s initials more than once, but Lake pretends he doesn’t hear it. Later, he puts his arm around the idle player’s shoulder as they leave the field together.
The coach decides that Tupuola-Fetui will make a low-key return in one or both of the upcoming road games at Arizona and Stanford, away from home fans who might incite him to play a little less cautiously.
In the big picture, the Huskies want to have him ready to make a big splash against Oregon Nov. 6 at Montlake. They always want all hands on deck to face the dreaded Ducks.
What will it be for ZTF?
An uncomfortable scoreboard deficit, the coach’s caution and the player’s insistence will reveal the mystery.