Prospect Profile: Laiatu Latu

The NFL world is lucky that it will soon have the opportunity to watch UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu. The deadly pass rusher almost passed up a football career after leading his high school to two national championships in rugby. After briefly considering an international career as a professional rugby player, Latu made the decision to go to college for football and is now preparing to receive a call this Thursday from an NFL coach or general manager.

Latu was a consensus four-star recruit out of Jesuit HS in Carmichael, CA, with 247Sports ranking him as a top-100 recruit and a top-five weakside defensive end in the country. Latu received all the major college football offers before narrowing it down to an all-west coast top-five of Cal, Oregon, USC, UCLA, and Washington. Latu committed to the Huskies as their third-best recruit in the Class of 2019 behind only Trent McDuffie and Puka Nacua.

As a true freshman, Latu failed to see the field much at all as a reserve and special teamer. In the runup to the 2020 season, Latu suffered a serious neck injury and was eventually told he would have to medically retire because of the ailment. After seeking out the opinion of the doctor who performed Peyton Manning‘s neck surgery back in the day, Latu was medically cleared to play again.

During his rehabilitation, Latu returned to the rugby pitch. Once again, the young athlete was given the opportunity to go pro, receiving a contract offer from the Seattle Seawolves, but yet again, Latu refused to give up on his dream of playing football. He entered the transfer portal and found his way back to his home state with the Bruins, following his position coach at Washington, Ikaika Malloe, whom Latu saw as a bit of a father figure.

In his debut season at UCLA, Latu exploded coming off the bench. Despite not starting a single game, Latu led the team in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (12.5) on his way to first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Last season, as a full-time starter, Latu improved on both of those numbers, leading the Pac-12 in sacks (13.0) while leading the nation in tackles for loss (21.5). Not only did Latu return to the All-Pac-12 first team in 2023, but he was also the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. On top of his ability to bring opponents down behind the line of scrimmage, Latu was disruptive in other ways with five forced fumbles, five passes defensed, and two interceptions during his two years in Los Angeles.

Latu is a pass-rush specialist. With 129 total pressures in 25 games, NFL teams will be licking their chops to add the 23-year-old to their defensive front. He’s wily and effective in putting together his pass-rush moves. His hands are quick and strong, helping him beat any player in his path with rips, clubs, and punches. He is quick off the line, and his elite flexibility helps him to get around tackles on the outside with ease. He’s used to getting double teams and still finds ways to be productive. Latu keeps his eyes on the backfield, helping him to rack up those TFLs, and he uses the drive and aggression from his rugby days to pursue ball carriers all over the field. He also showed athleticism dropping back in coverage, and the coaches at UCLA claim he could have been their best tight end if they had played him both ways.

Latu’s biggest red flag is going to be his medical history. The two-and-a-half-year sabbatical from football due to the neck injury could scare some teams off, though they’ll all have done their homework on the situation at this point in the process. On the field, though, he could stand to improve in his run defense. He’s great at identifying the play but can too easily be erased when runs are designed to go right at him, and he misses too many tackles.

Alabama’s Dallas Turner has long been viewed as the top edge rusher in a class that maybe isn’t as strong as groups of the past. Latu has already worked his way up the draft board, passing Penn State’s Chop Robinson and Florida State’s Jared Verse to get to the second spot on most draft boards at the position. As the draft gets closer and closer, front offices are starting to become enamored with Latu’s disruptive abilities. There isn’t a better pure pass rusher in this draft, and with the ability to play standing up or with a hand in the dirt, he could go to nearly any team and become their sacks leader as a rookie.

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