For Nevada running back Toa Taua, this season will be a family affair.
For starters, his brother, Vai, the former Wolf Pack star, will be his position coach this season. But it extends beyond that. His entire family – mom, dad, four brothers, two sisters and even a cousin – moved to Reno this winter so they no longer had to drive from Lompoc in Southern California to watch his games.
“I’ll never go hungry,” Taua joked about his family living so close.
Well, it was partially a joke. Taua said he added 10 pounds this offseason and feels “a lot stronger, a lot faster.” He credited the “Eight Weeks of Grit” winter conditioning program conducted by strength coach Jordon Simmons, but the extra servings he’s been getting at his parents’ house also have helped.
“I have my own place, but I go there a lot. They try and kick me out when I go eat," Taua said with a laugh.
Taua had a stellar true freshman season at Nevada, earning the program’s first MW freshman of the year award. The 5-foot-8, 220-pounder led the Wolf Pack in rushing yards (872) and yards per carry (4.9) and was second in rushing touchdowns (six). He ranked 10th in the nation among freshmen in rushing and did so while splitting carries with his teammates. Taua surpassed 15 carries only three times in Nevada's 13 games. He did all that while dealing with confidence issues typically associated with being a freshman.
“Last year, I felt like I was a lacking a lot of confidence,” Taua said. “Coming into it as a freshmen, not knowing a lot of faces, not knowing the playbook like the back of my hand and not knowing the experience of how it is actually playing in college football. This year I’m trying to come in with a whole different mindset and trying to be more confident and play to my best ability.”
Taua said his mindset is about “doing what is best for this team,” which likely means a spike in carries. Nevada does return two other running backs with starting experience in Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide, both seniors, but it’s fair to expect Taua to get more than the 13.7 carries per game he logged last season, especially with the team’s short-yardage back – Devonte Lee – out with a major knee injury. With individual glory might be forthcoming for the talented Taua, he's more worried about other goals.
“I’m trying to win a Mountain West championship,” Taua said. “All of the accolades matter in a certain way, but there’s nothing better than getting a team win and that championship feeling.”
Guiding Taua this year will be his older brother, Vai, who starred for Nevada from 2007-10. The elder Taua was elevated to running backs coach after David White took a high school job in Mississippi. It’s an unusual circumstance, with both Tauas agreeing Toa might get it a little worse than the team's other backs.
“I don’t think there’s a book on it or anything,” Vai Taua said. “I’m just day to day on it. I try to not be too hard on him, but I keep the same pressure on all of those kids. He has a little more extra because he has to see me later on, but I keep the same pressure on all those kids because I believe they’re all talented. I’m lucky to step into a room that has so much talent and I’m just thankful.”
Hard coaching isn’t anything new for Taua, who comes from a competitive family. How competitive?
“One of my sisters played football and my other sister, she could beat that sister up,” Vai joked, adding, “There’s competition in everything. Video games, who’s eating the most food, there’s competition. It’s great to have a family that just loves sports. We’ve learned so much through sports and really through football, so many life lessons and we’re so appreciative of what we’ve been able to do so far.”
Taua's father, whose first name is Taua, has been a mainstay at practice in spring camp following his family's move to Reno. The big question now is whether Toa can break his brother's Wolf Pack records. Vai Taua holds Nevada’s all-time rushing record in the school’s FBS era, posting 4,588 yards and 53 touchdowns. Toa would have to average 1,239 yards per season to break that mark, which is within the realm of possibility.
But Toa is instead focused on something else: packing Mackay Stadium to the levels Vai and his teammates did. When Nevada upset No. 3-ranked Boise State in 2010 before 30,712 fans, the fifth-largest crowd in school history, an elementary-school-aged Toa was in attendance.
“I just remember when that team beat Boise State and I was here at that game and I remember going in the locker room and looking around at all these grown men and everybody was so happy over this win,” Toa Taua said. “I want that. I want that feeling. A big championship would mean the world to me. That’s ultimately what we’re all looking for.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.