Shedding pounds and blockers

It’s easy to let things spin out of control.

When Alameda Ta’amu suffered an injury at the end of his senior year of high school at nearby Rainier Beach, he spent a lot of time sitting around and eating. So when the defensive tackle put on an extra 40 pounds before he arrived at the UW prior to the 2008 season, he didn’t really realize the changes his body had undergone.

A decorated high-school player, Ta’amu was a Parade All-American, Metro League Sound Division Player of the Year and 3A First-Team All- State selection— he was talented enough, despite being out of shape, to start five games and see action in all 12 games his freshman year. Because of his weight, though, it was hard for Ta’amu to stay on the field for even half the snaps during a game.

“When I came in, I was fat and I didn’t even know it,” he said. “I was like 375 [pounds], and, in order to be successful and play the whole game, you have to be like 330, 325.”

Ta’amu’s career wasn’t close to where it should have been for a player so talented. It wasn’t even heading in the right direction, but it was the offseason after that miserable 2008 campaign that put it on the right path. When head coach Steve Sarkisian was signed on to lead the Huskies, he hired Ivan Lewis as the new strength and conditioning coach, a move that proved crucial for Ta’amu.

Ta’amu admits he “wasn’t sure what to expect with the new coaches coming in,” but almost immediately started working with Lewis to trim down.

“Coach Ivan had me run, run a lot; do extra work on my own,” he said of the 5 a.m. practices Lewis and another coach put him through during that first winter and spring. “It helped out a lot — I hated it at the time, but it paid off. He basically challenged me. The more weight I lost the less work I had to do. It was hard work getting up, but after a couple months, you get used to it.”

Lewis said he knew there was a lot of work to be done to get Ta’amu to the target weight below about 340 pounds, a size that would help make him an effective every-down player. He also realized what it was going to take to motivate him.

“I think it was something he hadn’t done before, so I think, in a sense, it was hard because he hadn’t worked that hard before,” he said. “Once we got him to understand how to work, it became easier to keep him going and doing that.”

The hard work off the field started paying off for him on the field. Ta’amu started 11 of the 12 games during the 2009 season as he began to become the impact player the coaches knew he could be. Then last season, Ta’amu showed just how much time and effort he had put in by getting noticeably stronger as the season progressed.

The Kent, Wash., native was rewarded as an Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 selection and then turned in arguably the finest performance of his career against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl when he recovered a fumble and recorded a sack as the Huskies dominated on the defensive end to upset the Huskers 19-7.

“I [could] last the whole game, I played every snap,” Ta’amu said of the last two seasons. “It makes me feel like I mean more to the team, rather than just running a couple plays and being tired and being all fat. Just being able to keep playing down after down made me feel like it’s me.”

And it isn’t just the results on the field that are apparent — his teammates have taken notice of something else.

“I’ve seen him take more ownership in himself,” senior defensive end Everrette Thompson said. “The older he got, the more he understood and re- alized what he has in front of him and the ability he has. He just got the job done and lost weight and got better.” Lewis has also noticed a big change in the 6-foot-3, 337-pounder other than his level of play on the field.

“His demeanor’s way better,” he said. “He’s a more confident player; he works harder because he understands how to work now.”

And work he does. Defensive line coach Johnny Nansen had to completely break down and rebuild Ta’amu’s technique, but because of his determination, he has adapted. With the rare combination of size and agility that he possesses, Nansen believes the Huskies have a special player.

“The sky’s the limit for him; it’s all up to him,” Nansen said of Ta’amu, who is regarded as one of the top defensive tackles in the country. “Guys like that are hard to find. I think he’s starting to realize the potential and how dominant he can be for a defense.”

His teammates are realizing it as well. And, although Ta’amu isn’t the loudest leader, he certainly is respected.

“Everybody seems to listen to Alameda,” Thompson said. “He’s a great leader on D — he gets the voice out there, the message. When he speaks, everybody listens, that’s the thing. That’s a great attribute to have. Everybody comes to him and listens to him.”

If the trend of hard work and steady improv ment continues this season, everybody will come to watch him, as well.

Reach Sports Editor Josh Liebeskind at sports@dailyuw.com.

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