By Jerry Briggs
For Inside Runner Sports
Josiah Tauaefa speaks a little like he plays -- with a distinct undercurrent of passion.
UTSA’s all-Conference USA middle linebacker also talks with his hands, using them to gesture, to add emphasis to his message.
So, what’s the message from Tauaefa, with spring practice set to begin Monday?
The third-year sophomore from Lake Dallas told reporters in his first interview session at UTSA last week that he wants to heighten his performance level by becoming more cerebral in his approach.
To accomplish that, Tauaefa said he hopes to refine his “play recognition” of opposing offenses, allowing him to know his assignment instantly.
That way, he can play faster.
Last year, Tauaefa admitted he would sometimes hesitate, thinking before he reacted.
“I don’t want that,” he said, making a slashing gesture with one hand to drive his point home. “I want it to be second nature, (and) that’s going to come with film study. That’s going to come with asking questions and really being a student of the game. I’m prepared for that challenge.”
Tauaefa’s rise to prominence as one of the C-USA’s top players began this time last year.
A new UTSA coaching staff noticed during winter conditioning exercises that he excelled in side-to-side agility drills.
As a result, the staff moved him from the defensive line to linebacker.
Tauaefa promptly exploded during his redshirt freshman season with a school-record 115 tackles, including nine for loss and six sacks.
About the only facet of his game that ever came into question was his pass coverage, but second-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson scoffs at the critique.
“There’s nothing he can’t deal with,” Wilson said. “He can rush the quarterback. He can cover a tight end. He can cover a slot receiver. Now, we’re not putting him on an island. If somebody is in motion out of the back field, we’re not putting him out there.
“But the bigger guys inside, he can cover … all the things underneath. That’s what he’s asked to do, and he can do that well. Certainly, he can support the run and do that extremely well. So, we’re confident that he will continue to develop.”
A starter from day one in fall camp last summer, Tauaefa burst into prominence, registering double-digit tackles in five of his first seven games. His statistics declined down the stretch, when UTSA was surging to its historic first season of bowl eligibility.
But that didn’t necessarily mean Tauaefa wasn’t playing well.
Wilson said teams started to scheme and double team against Tauaefa in the second half, which allowed other UTSA defenders, such as linebacker La’Kel Bass, to come on strong with their own double-digit tackle efforts.
“Allowing the next man to make (the tackle) is very unselfish and mature,” Wilson said. “He did that. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a lull. He (played) his role. It allowed us to make progress as a team.”
Coaches and teammates have known for several years that Tauaefa was a promising prospect. Former UTSA defensive coordinator Neal Neathery said so on signing day in February 2015. Asked if any defensive players in the class stood out to him, he mentioned Tauaefa.
“He plays like his hair’s on fire,” Neathery said at the time. “He has a really high motor.”
Pretty soon, UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport started calling Tauaefa “Fuego” for his drive and determination.
”I feel like that explains him,” Davenport told reporters last fall.. “That’s his heart, his effort. He’s been that way ever since I’ve seen film of him from high school.”
Tauaefa sat out the 2015 season under the previous coaching staff to redshirt. Last year, in his first season on the field, he made plays that remain talking points for a fan-base energized to see what will happen in the fall.
Against Southern Miss, Tauaefa intercepted Nick Mullens at the goal line late in a momentum-turning 55-32 home victory at the Alamodome.
Three weeks later, he hurdled a blocker at the line of scrimmage and sacked North Texas quarterback Mason Fine in a 31-17 victory, also at home, helping to blunt a late drive by the Mean Green.
At the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Tauaefa energized the UTSA fans in the first quarter by dumping New Mexico’s burly Richard McQuarley with a perfect form tackle at the goal line.
Tauaefa said he heard the roar of the crowd.
“I did,” he said. “I did actually hear that. First of all, the reason I did (hear it), there was so many people that traveled … it was awesome … But after that play, I’m not going to lie, I had been wanting to get a tackle like that for my entire life.”
Years ago, he said he envisioned himself making plays like that.
“I had seen highlights of people doing it, when they grab (a runner) and then drive ‘em (back),” he said. “I always said I would love to get a tackle like that. So, when that happened, I was like, ‘Did that just happen? I’m going to have to see the replay.’ But the roar was definitely there.
“It was awesome, a lot of fun.”
Deep inside, Tauaefa knew he could play the college game. He implied that he was even confident he could play at a high level.
“I don’t want to say (it was) a surprise because it would mean I didn’t expect it from myself,” he said. But it was definitely fulfilling to see all the hard work … pay off, not only me individually, but just as a team.
“Everything we did, we went from 3-9 (the team’s record in 2016) to a 6-6 regular season record and (reached) our first bowl game ever. That’s our standard now.”
Tauaefa said his accomplishments and those of the team can be traced to his support team at UTSA – players, coaches and strength staff.
“Everything they did to push us, it was awesome,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was a surprise (to me), but it was eye-opening to see the potential … the level that could be reached.