By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - The person responsible for transforming Alameda Ta'amu's college career at Washington - heck, his entire life - stands yay tall.
The one responsible for turning him from overweight and lazy into an all-conference defensive tackle named this week by the National Football Post as the top senior NFL prospect in the Pac-12 is all of 2 years old.
She's Lillyana Esther, born May 18, 2009 - the day the 6-foot-3, 337-pound Ta'amu grew into a man in so many more ways than merely as a football player.
"It helped me grow up faster, not getting caught up in the college life, hanging out and partying. A little more time in the house, and maybe a little more focused on football," Ta'amu said while standing on the edge of Husky Stadium's turf field following one of the first practices of preseason training camp.
"Everything I do is not only for my family, it's for my daughter now."
His smile revealed why he seemed to be talking with a slight lisp. He was still wearing his white mouthpiece from practice.
On the upper front of it, staring back at me in black, all-capital and block letters: "BIG DADDY."
"Everything I do is not only for my family, it's for my daughter now."
His daughter is everywhere in his life. Even in practice, inside his helmet.
"He's a great father. He puts her before anybody in his life. He'd do anything for that girl," said linebacker Cort Dennison, Ta'amu's classmate and co-leader of the Huskies' defense. " Anytime you talk to Alameda about his daughter, he smiles and has a great sense of joy - for him, and for her.
"Alameda is the kind of kid that I know after football, when it's all said and done, is going to be successful. I know he's going to be a great father. He's going to be in her life for her whole life, and he's going to be a positive figure."
I've been a dad for eight years, and I can't comprehend trying to play big-time college football, earn a degree and raise an infant - all while just past 20. When my twins were Lilyana's age, I could barely see straight enough to tie my shoes correctly.
Steve Sarkisian, the Huskies' 37-year-old coach and father of three, feels the same way. I asked him after practice Tuesday if he could imagine trying to raise a child while he was a star college quarterback in the early 1990s.
"No, no, no," Sarkisian said, chuckling and shaking his head.
"It's a huge responsibility, but something that forces guys in a really good manner to mature. His daughter coming into his life is one of the best things that's ever happened to him."
Sarkisian and Dennison are pals with Lillyana, who comes to Huskies' practices often.
What is the rugged tackle like around his baby girl?
"Gentle," Sarkisian said, "which, you know, most dads are. He's a gentle, caring guy."
On the field? Uh, not so much.
Embarrassed by Nebraska running for nearly 300 yards through his gap last September, Ta'amu resolved to stop trying to do everyone else's job and stay home in his own area of responsibility. That change, coupled with his newfound maturity and sense of purpose because of Lillyana, turned him into a freakishly dominant tackle.
He engulfed the usually supersonic, top-ranked Oregon Ducks with a season-high seven tackles to begin November, then matched that and added a sack in the next game when UW manhandled UCLA, also on national television. He had two tackles and another sack in the Apple Cup, also broadcast nationally.
Embarrassed by Nebraska running for nearly 300 yards through his gap last September, Ta'amu resolved to stop trying to do everyone else's job and stay home in his own area of responsibility.
Then an ESPN audience saw Ta'amu manhandle Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl rematch. He had a 10-yard sack and a 14-yard fumble recovery early in the game, and Washington's defensive line dominated the Cornhuskers in a 19-7 victory.
When it was over, people nationally began declaring him a candidate for the first round of next spring's NFL draft. No Washington defensive lineman has been selected that high since almighty Steve Emtman, whom the Colts took first overall in 1992.
Former Huskies line coach Randy Hart, who recruited Ta'amu to Washington, used to bring up Emtman to him. But Ta'amu doesn't feel worthy to even breathe the name.
"I don't believe it, but a lot of people try to compare me to Steve Emtman. He's way too great a player to compare me with him," said Ta'amu, who has never met the Huskies legend.
"But (when they do) I'm like, `Man.'"
He is E-like in that offenses playing the Huskies this season will have to game plan specifically for the immovable force in the middle, and will often devote multiple blockers to him. That is likely to create mismatches elsewhere that Washington's physical, fast defensive line and linebackers can exploit.
FROM `FAT' TO FANTASTIC IN 2 YEARS
Ta'amu was a Parade high school All-American at Rainier Beach in Seattle, recruited to UW by the staff of Sarkisian's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. The weight of expectations from his extended family was part of the reason he chose to stay close to home, over scholarship offers from Arizona, Hawaii and Oregon State.
Still today, his family reminds him to be a good role model for his many nieces and nephews, to go to college and succeed.
He hasn't always done that, though.
He started five games as a true freshman in 2008 - sorry to mention that abominable season again.
To hear him tell it, Ta'amu deserved to be the water boy that year.
"I thought I was a role model when I came in, but I was young. It wasn't until last year, my junior year, when I realized I had to step up," he says.
"I work harder on the field. And I eat salad now. I eat a lot more salad now."
"I didn't know my stuff. When I first came in, I didn't want to watch film. I was fat, didn't care about working out. But a lot of things changed when Ivan (Lewis, UW's transforming strength coach) came in, and with my daughter."
Now he's a rock-like, instead of sloth-like.
"I work harder on the field. And I eat salad now. I eat a lot more salad now," he said, laughing.
Hard work. That's what those around him notice most between Ta'amu, the kid, and Ta'amu the dedicated dad.
"His work ethic has just dramatically risen," said Dennison, the middle linebacker who was a redshirt freshman when Ta'amu arrived at UW in 2008. "I feel like when he wants to go, he's almost impossible to block. He's one of the best defensive linemen in the conference, and one of the strongest. I think with how big he is, he's definitely one of the fastest. When Alameda wants to do something, you can't block him. When he wants to go, when he's that driven, he's just an amazing football player."
"When Alameda is doing that, he makes our defense complete."
"People recognize me here and there. I went to the movies the other night with my daughter and a guy recognized me, yelling, `Hey, Alameda! Go Dawgs!'" Ta'amu said.
"I was like, `Man, people recognize me!'"
ANOTHER TURNING POINT
As great as Lillyana is and has been for Ta'amu, she can't play for him.
That's where Nebraska comes in.
After the Cornhuskers ripped through Washington last September, Ta'amu viewed the game tape in search of answers.
He found one by looking in the mirror.
"They ran almost 300 yards up the middle. That's my job. That's my gap," he said. "I sat down and watched the game. I was trying to do other people's jobs ... and leaving the middle wide open."
"It was more like revenge, you know? I am not that player. I am the player I was at the end of the year."
"Yeah, it did (change me). It was embarrassing."
Then, before the Oregon game Nov. 6, the defense was critiquing itself as a whole during more film sessions. The lesson was the same as Ta'amu's from the first Nebraska game: Trust each other. Do your own job.
If this year is like his last two, Ta'amu is going to be able to take care of Lillyana far better than he could have ever imagined when he was loafing through 2008.
The linemen stayed home and held down the cosmic Ducks' offense for most of three quarters, until depth and Oregon's speed in waves finally swamped the Huskies late in that loss. But the results were a revelation. It sparked four wins, including a program-turning bowl victory, perhaps four of the most dominant games a UW defensive front has had since, oh, that guy named Emtman was playing on it.
"One of the big keys is the overall understanding of what we're doing. He is playing a lot faster now," Sarkisian said of Ta'amu. "That's one of the key things for defensive linemen. It's one thing to be big, strong or fast, but are you using the proper techniques and fundamentals, and then are you playing within the scheme properly? I think that's the biggest step he's taken, is gap integrity, staying in his gap and still being powerful and strong and moving people.
"And obviously he's in much better shape."
So is the Huskies' defense. Coaches have been teaming Ta'amu with even-bigger freshman tackle Danny Shelton this month. It's a potential, 670-plus pound answer inside to the physical, power offenses Nebraska, Stanford and USC will use against UW this season.
If this year is like his last two, Ta'amu is going to be able to take care of Lillyana far better than he could have ever imagined when he was loafing through 2008. After all, professional football executives love to see the maturity and responsibility - not to mention the production -- Ta'amu has had while at UW.
"Everyone is saying the NFL is there, that I can be a high pick," he says, but only when pressed about it.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.