For the past two years, running back Jordan Ellis wore Virginia’s prestigious No. 1 jersey, an honor voted on by the team and reserved for the player who has earned the locker room’s respect.
Ellis wasn’t flashy. He didn’t dart through the defense on long touchdown runs or make tacklers look foolish with knee-buckling cuts. He was steady, and Virginia running backs coach Mark Atuaia said his presence can still be felt as the Cavaliers continue with spring practice.
“Especially in PK [Kier], in how he goes about his business and coming out on the field and taking care of any situation I need him to. That’s Jordan Ellis,” Atuaia said.
In terms of physicality and his north-south running style, Kier (6-0, 230) is the back on the roster most similar to Ellis. The expectation is that he’ll split carries early this season with Lamont Atkins and Chris Sharp, with fullback Jamari Peacock leading the way. But a new player has emerged in the race to replace Ellis, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa.
Taulapapa appeared in seven games last season, all on special teams, but the Honolulu, Hawaii, native spent most of the year playing catch-up after he missed spring ball while finishing his two-year LDS mission to Managua, Nicaragua.
Now with a full complement of offseason workouts and spring practices under his belt, he’s beginning to settle in.
“It’s a big transition, and there are a lot of plays to learn,” Taulapapa said. “I’m trying to work every day to be sound with the offense and find our true identity.”
Taulapapa looks bigger than the 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds he’s listed at, and he has shown glimpses of what made him a 3,000-yard rusher during his career at Punahou High School.
“Right now, he’s swimming and trying to learn, but I think the intangibles are there,” Atuaia said.
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Taulapapa’s greatest contribution so far has been his consistency.
“We have three things we talk about a lot here, which are durability and consistency and production. All three, and that’s what he’s done,” Mendenhall said. “He performs every day, he’s here every day and he’s producing every day, more so right now than his competitors.”
Especially on Mendenhall’s team, where roles are earned and can change week to week, it’s way too early to speculate how many of Taulapapa’s snaps in 2019 will be on special teams or offense. Right now, he’s just taking it all in and trying to soak up whatever he can from the rest of the running backs on the roster, most of whom have a two-year head start.
“It’s really important for me to learn each role and really take in everything from each of them,” Taulapapa said. “They’re there every day to correct me and push me to be better in all aspects.”