The hair is bigger than ever. So are the punishing hits.
And now Washington State linebacker Sekope Kaufusi is set to bring those distinctive features and his blossoming game to the new Pac-12 Conference in what is shaping up to be a breakout season.
Kaufusi, a former Woodside High School standout, began to earn significant playing time for Washington State in the second half of the 2010 season as a redshirt freshman. And after a solid offseason that included a beneficial move to strongside linebacker, he is now an emerging playmaker and an important piece in what the long downtrodden Cougars hope will be a turnaround year.
“I feel great. I’ve been flying around a lot,” said Kaufusi, who played middle linebacker, weakside linebacker and defensive end early in his collegiate career. “I feel I can cover a lot of ground with my size, and my speed for my size.”
Kaufusi earned the Cougar “Big Hit” award after the Montana State, USC and Arizona games last year – which should be no surprise to those who witnessed the devastating blows he delivered to opposing ballcarriers while at Woodside. Now, with an expanded role and the freedom to roam in space, the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder seems sure to make plenty more resounding statements.
Beyond the imposing tackles, Kaufusi’s rapid progress in mastering yet another new position has his coaches believing the redshirt sophomore is on the cusp of big things.
“He has improved a ton and will have a chance to be an impact player in this conference,” Washington State linebackers coach Chris Tormey said. “He has great toughness, is very coachable and has done a great job of focusing on getting better each day.”
Added head coach Paul Wulff: “He has had a very solid and consistent camp and is primed to have a good year.”
Kaufusi, who grew up in East Palo Alto, believes there are several pieces in place in a defense he said is “looking very promising.” And with just two seniors in the unit, he hopes the defense can continue to develop and become the driving force for Washington State’s resurgence.
The Cougars, who open their schedule by hosting Idaho State on Sept. 3, haven’t had a winning season since 2003. And they are 5-32 in the last three years, including just 2-25 in conference games. But they looked improved toward the end of last season: beating Oregon State 31-14 and losing close games to Cal and Washington in the final three weeks.
Kaufusi said the key to maintaining that progress, and to plugging a run defense that has ranked among the nation’s worst in recent seasons, is to tackle small, immediate tasks every day.
“Our mentality going into it called ‘the next 200 feet.’ The only thing you can really concentrate on is right now,” said Kaufusi, who lives with his girlfriend Sui Sami and their 2-year-old son Ziggy Atagi-Kaufusi. “We’re not looking into Idaho State right now; we’re still concentrating on ourselves."
“I’m very confident in my team this year," added Kaufusi, who is looking forward to playing in front of friends and family during WSU's Nov. 5 game against Cal at AT&T Park. "This year, the vibe has shifted to a more … all the players are into it now.”
For his part, Kaufusi is eagerly embracing “the challenge” of bringing winning football back to Pullman, Wash. Tormey, his positional coach, figures Kaufusi will play a big role in that pursuit, saying, “Sekope has the physical attributes to become an elite linebacker in the Pac-12 Conference.”
As for Kaufusi’s signature free-flowing locks? Let’s just say the eye-popping tackling ability isn’t the only thing he has in common with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.
“It’s ‘long hair – don’t care,’” Kaufusi related. “That’s what I say.”