As Washington head coach Chris Petersen talked with East defensive lineman Sam “Taki” Taimani last year, Brandon Matich could feel the energy in the room shift.
Up to that point, the East High head football coach thought the highly recruited lineman would choose Notre Dame. Matich and Taimani were so close, he often referred to the coach as “Dad” and Matich is a life-long Fighting Irish fan. The idea of having a player wearing gold and blue was thrilling for Matich and the Leopard program.
“I was worried he would try to appease his coach,” Matich said. “We were pretty excited, but not trying to push anything. When coach Petersen came into East, and he sat down and talked to (Taki) with Ikaika Malloe, his defensive line coach, he was so powerful, so strong so real, it makes Taki emotional. I knew then it was a done deal. I knew he was going to be a Husky.”
Taimani isn’t the only Utah prep star to be lured to Seattle by Petersen and his assistants.
When the University of Utah faces Washington on Friday, they’ll certainly see Provo alum Ty Jones, who is second in receptions for the Huskies, and they could possibly see former Alta standout MJ Tafisi.
Jones is Washington’s second-leading receiver with 28 catches for 469 yards, and he leads the team with six touchdown receptions. He scored a touchdown against Utah in the Huskies 21-7 win on Sept. 15 and had a reception against BYU.
“He’s doing a great job,” Petersen said in a Monday press conference. “He’s an awesome team guy. He works hard. He’s a guy you really like coaching.”
Taimani and Tafisi have only played limited snaps in just a few games, and their coaches believe they’ll end up redshirting this season thanks to a rule change that allows a player to appear in no more than four games while still preserving that critical redshirt year.
Taimani (whose surname was Vakalahi in high school) had two tackles against Oregon State, while Tafisi made his debut much earlier in the season against North Dakota. The linebacker finished with two tackles against Oregon State and earned one tackle against Washington State in the Huskies critical Apple Cup victory last week.
None of the Utah players were allowed to talk with media in the week leading up to the Pac-12 championship, scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m. (Mountain Time) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. But all of the young athletes keep in touch with their high school coaches, who offered insight into the experiences the young players are having at Washington.
“Ty Jones has made a big splash,” said Alta head coach Alema Te’o, who coached Tafisi in high school. “And I’ve heard (from coaches) they definitely like MJ and (Taki). Those guys (Washington coaches) are actively in here trying to come after our best players. I’m excited to see MJ play, and I’m excited to see Utah play. I think it will be a very competitive game.”
Te’o said Tafisi’s adjustment has been fairly smooth.
“He’s having a good time, and he’s really adapted well,” he said. “I think that’s a testament to the quality of football we play here in Utah. When they leave for college, no matter where they go, they’re prepared. These guys are going to make an impact.”
All three players visit their high school coaches and talk with younger players when they return to Utah.
Taimani checks in with Matich every Friday afternoon via FaceTime.
“He’s always lounging in a locker room, and he’s happy,” Matich said. “He loves where he’s at. He absolutely loves Seattle. His life has been relatively sheltered, so he’s really just enjoying the experience.”
Matich said Taimani hasn’t even begun to show what he can do at the collegiate level.
“He’s one of the most dominant athletes, based on size, movement, explosive energy,” Matich said. “The way he gets off a football. And that nasty disposition, once he gets that helmet on.”
All three were praised for their work ethic, but none more so than Jones. His former high school coaches talked about how he used to work out alone, long after his teammates had called it a day.
“He made a lot of those circus catches in high school,” Provo head coach Tony McGeary told the Deseret News when Jones returned to Utah in September. “I’m glad to see him make a few at the next level.”6 comments on this story
Jones had a jaw-dropping catch in Washington’s 27-20 win over Arizona State. In a Seattle Times article, Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan praised his off-season efforts.
“He’s made it over and over again,” Hamdan said of Jones. “Physically, he put himself in a position this summer to be one of those top premier guys. I think he’s doing some really good things out there.”
Petersen said he’s not sure playing Utah adds an emotional element for the Utah natives on his roster.
“I’m sure it adds another dimension,” he said. “But it’s not like going back home. We’re playing at a neutral site.”