There are two sides to Puyallup High School senior football player Danny Uluilakepa. Run into him in the hallways of PHS during the school day, and chances are, he’ll be laughing with friends and wearing flip-flops. Yes, even in the middle of winter.
“He wears flip-flops everywhere he goes — it doesn’t matter what the weather is,” said Puyallup football coach Gary Jeffers, laughing. “He’s pretty jovial.”
But once Uluilakepa — who usually goes by “Danny U,” for the sake of simplicity — trades in the flip-flops for cleats on gameday, watch out for the Vikings’ linebacker. That laid-back personality all but disappears when the lights come on.
“He’s a really competitive person,” said junior quarterback Luke Holcomb. “He’s really intense.”
Holcomb thought back to Puyallup’s game against Emerald Ridge on Sept. 13. The Vikings were leading at halftime, but weren’t playing particularly well. That didn’t sit well with Uluilakepa, who has started for Puyallup since he was a sophomore and has been a team captain for the past two seasons.
“We go into the locker room, and Danny is mad,” Holcomb said. “He’s yelling at people, but he’s trying to get everyone together. He’s an intense dude. He’s getting into people. I love that about him. You can’t mess around or Danny’s going to get into you, which is great because he’s our leader.”
To Uluilakepa, holding his teammates accountable — as well as himself — is part of his job. He has called the plays for the defense since he was a sophomore, and his teammates look to him as the field general for the defense.
“Everyone relies on me to get it out to them, tell everyone what to do and where to be,” he said. “I just make sure all the boys are focused and ready to play.”
For Jeffers and the Viks’ coaching staff to put so much faith in an underclassman is rare, to say the least.
“It’s always our preference to not start a sophomore,” Jeffers said. “He was an exception to the rule. We weren’t sure until we saw him, but we knew sophomore year.
“He was one of the first junior captains we’ve ever had. So he’s been involved in the leadership of the program. He’s a hard worker in the weight room, so he’s gotten faster and stronger every year, and has just gotten more physical and dominant, more competent in our system and in his understanding. He’s like having a coach on the field.”
And why shouldn’t Puyallup’s coaching staff place their faith in the 6-foot, 210-pound senior? He led the state last season with 182 total tackles, per MaxPreps. On seemingly every play, Uluilakepa is around the football.
“He’s got a super strong football IQ,” Jeffers said. “He watches film, knows how to diagnose plays. He has great close space quickness — he closes the gap really quick. Then he just has the run-hit factor. When he hits you, you know you got hit. He’s probably one of the best players I’ve ever coached. He makes it happen. He’s an instinctual football player, no doubt about it.”
He might not be the biggest linebacker in the state, or the fastest. But there are certain things that can’t be measured.
“He doesn’t run a 4.5 or whatever, but he has great instincts, great anticipation,” Holcomb said. “I swear he’s on every tackle. He’s always around the ball.”
He’s also being featured at running back for the Vikings in short-yardage situations this season. In Puyallup’s win against Sumner last week, he rushed five times for 12 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s just a beast,” Holcomb said. “He’s just a big, strong dude and he’s hard to tackle.”
Uluilakepa has goals for the Puyallup defense. He wants to hold opponents under 10 points per game (so far, two for three in that regard). But mostly, he talks about playing with a certain edge, a certain attitude.
“We want to make sure everyone plays with energy, has that fire,” he said.
As long as Uluilakepa stars in the middle of the Viks’ defense, that shouldn’t be a problem.