The statistics speak for themselves: 415 tackles, 47.0 tackles for loss, and seven interceptions. So do the accolades: All-ACC defensive team, Scout.com freshman All-American, and, this year, the Duke senior has a strong case to take conference player of the year honors. Not a bad resume for a linebacker that had to essentially recruit the former Duke coaching staff to get an offer extended.
He visited Durham in January of 2005 in hopes of earning the last available Duke scholarship for the class of 2005. And though he didn't get an offer on the visit, Tauiliili (then known as Mike Brown) made his intentions clear to the coaching staff.
“They know if they offer I’ll commit on the spot,” he told TDD following his visit. “I’ve told Coach Yano that’s the deal, and he’s being honest with me. My parents are and I both hope it’s Duke.”
At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds Tauiliili was a late addition to the Duke recruiting radar improved his stock beginning in the spring when he showed up at Scout.com’s MLS Greater Houston Area Combine on a mission. He improved his forty time to 4.77 (from nearly 4.9) and blew the 20-yard shuttle station away with a 4.15 recorded time.
On the eve of signing day, when a late recruiting attempt to land another player fell through, Tauiliili got his recruiting wish when then head coach Ted Roof called and offered a scholarship. Soon after Duke had poached a recruit from Louisiana Tech and finished off the class of 2005 (arguably the program's highest rated in the last 20 years) with what many thought would be a serviceable backup.
Fast forward 10 months and Brown, who had started 10 games at middle linebacker as a true freshman, had recorded 92 tackles, ten tackles for loss, one sack, and three forced fumbles - good enough to be named to the Scout.com freshman All-American team. Some other notable names on that list included Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Southern Cal's Rey Maualuga, West Virginia's Pat White, and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton.
After the season Tauiliili sat down with TDD again to discuss the season and the first real signs that the Duke Football program was beginning to turn around despite an overall record of 1-10 and 0-8 in conference.
"[The success of his freshman season] is that much sweeter since no one wanted me even when I knew my potential. I’m going to continue to work hard so I can have three more good years here....The biggest thing we needed to change was the attitudes and the vibe around the program. It was not what it should be and people were getting used to that. The freshmen came from winning high school programs. We need that winning attitude here. None of us like losing, and this year really hurt. We’ve got a fire in us, along with some of the older guys to not let that happen."
Those messages continues into his sophomore season where Tauiliili was firmly planted as a leader on the defensive side of the ball and looking to light a fire under his teammates prior to the season. As had been the case for many years, the preseason wasn't overly positive as starting quarterback Zack Asack was suspended for the season, posing another setback. Still, Tauiliili's attitude remained constant.
"I still catch some heat from people asking when we’re finally going to turn it around and make some progress. I get it from friends, and even my family. I have learned that you can’t expect anyone to respect you or your effort – you have to earn that. So I don’t want to predict anything or say we’re going to do something, because most people won’t believe me once I walk off. But when they see the results on the scoreboard starting to come together, then they’ll know weren’t just talking."
What followed was one victory over the next 23 games and nothing in the ACC - going a combined 0-16. In the middle of that streak Tauiliili was suspended from the program for a violation of team policies in August of 2007 - forcing him to miss the opening game of the 2007 season against Virginia. After putting that incident behind him, Tauiliili managed to log 109 tackles as a junior before watching the coach who gave him a shot at the BCS level lose his job after the 2007 season.
"We feel like we let him down," Tauiliili told TDD on the heels of Roof's firing. "At the same time I have to keep things in perspective and provide some leadership for the young guys here. We're going to fully support whomever comes in, and we still want to get this program fixed."
A month later the Blue Devils introduced head coach David Cutcliffe who seemed to mirror his rising senior's ideals by putting the team through a rigorous preseason and making it known that losing was no longer acceptable and would not be tolerated. The team responded by winning three of its first four games including a 31-3 romp over Virginia in Wallace Wade - a game that saw Tauiliili record a career high 16 tackles and force three UVa turnovers - good enough to be named the National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation. From there Duke would win just one of their final seven contests despite being in a position to win in several - including the final contest against North Carolina.
"[The UNC game] was a good, hard-fought game, but like Coach [Cutcliffe] said ‘coming close is not acceptable here at Duke any longer.’ Words can’t express how hurt I am to take the loss."
Dealing with adversity and coming up short may have defined the Duke program over the last four years, but a quick review of the 2008 season and a look ahead to 2009 shows the program pushing every closer towards respectability and, hopefully, post season eligibility in the next few seasons - something Tauiliili and his classmates will be able to follow with a sense of pride and achievement.
"I’m just thinking about the greatness that’s waiting around the corner [for the program]. The seniors and me, we feel that we’ve done a lot, and we’re just excited about the program and we gave it all we had."
And for that, all die hard Duke fans are grateful.