Oklahoma DT Laulu completes emotional draft journey with Colts

Apr. 28—INDIANAPOLIS — It took Jonah Laulu a few extra moments Saturday evening to believe his dream really had come true.

When the Oklahoma defensive tackle answered the phone call from Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard informing him he was the 234th overall pick in the seventh round of the NFL Draft, Laulu first double-checked to make certain he wasn't being pranked.

Ballard quickly re-assured Laulu the call was real and told him to go ahead and decline all the incoming calls from suitors hoping to sign him as an undrafted free agency.

Thus began a celebration some considered unlikely as recently as February when Laulu failed to receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Like every other obstacle in his way throughout his football journey, however, Laulu pushed it aside and kept marching toward his goal.

"Right before I transferred to Oklahoma (in 2022), I think that's when I realized, OK, I could make football my career," Laulu said. "And so, man, just doing it for real — I'm still shaking. It's something you always dream about. Everybody always says I want to go play in the NFL. ... Being one of the guys that actually gets to do it is crazy. (It's) just very overwhelming right now."

Laulu's football journey began as an oversized high schooler for whom the game came easily.

The 6-foot-5, 289-pounder learned his work ethic from watching his mother work two jobs to manage bankruptcy when was 15 years old, and his talent in the game first took him to Hawaii to begin his college career.

His redshirt freshman season was an eye-opening experience as he learned real techniques and strategy for the first time. By Year 2, Laulu was showing rapid improvement and beginning to believe he could climb into the highest levels of the game.

Then the Warriors underwent a coaching change, and Laulu's progress was stunted.

After two seasons under the new coaching staff, he made a tough decision to enter the transfer portal.

"I just felt like I wasn't getting better as a defensive linemen," Laulu said. "And so I kind of fought myself with it — entering the portal or not. Ended up entering the portal because I wanted to get better coaching. I wanted to be in a system that kind of showcased my abilities, where I could play all over."

Laulu found his new home at Oklahoma, playing for one of the nation's most respected defensive-minded head coaches in Brent Venables.

The days of watching YouTube videos to learn new pass-rushing moves and studying tape of NFL stars like Maxx Crosby, Aaron Donald and Ed Oliver alone at home were over.

Now Laulu was part of a deep defensive line rotation and receiving the kind of coaching that could push him into the next level.

It still wasn't smooth sailing.

Laulu spent his first season getting "cooked" by wide receivers as a hybrid outside linebacker in the Sooners' 3-4 scheme. He quickly realized he wasn't cut out to rush quarterbacks from the edge and moved inside as a defensive tackle.

The raw numbers don't jump off the page. He made just six starts at Oklahoma and totaled 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

But Laulu displayed athletic traits that could help continue his upward momentum, and his superlative performance during the Sooners' Pro Day confirmed what scouts were seeing on tape.

"I have really high expectations for myself, and I'm really, really hard on myself — which is I think a good and bad thing," Laulu said. "Because if I don't meet my expectations, I'll be really on myself and I'll really get in my head. And it kind of motivates me to just keep going, which helped me get to where I am."

Laulu wasn't thinking about the attention he was generating from NFL decision makers. He was just trying to live up to his self-imposed standards.

As he rewatched clips of the event on YouTube and Oklahoma's in-house app, he was struck by the scouts' attention to detail and how closely they were paying attention to his every move.

"I kind of just tried to block out everything else and just focus on what was coming up next — whether it was broad jump, vertical, 40(-yard dash), all that," Laulu said. "But afterwards, though, I was like, 'OK, I guess I did pretty decent.'"

The Colts agreed.

Area scout Anthony Coughlin kept in touch before, during and after the event. And Laulu was invited to Indanapolis for one of the team's top-30 visits.

He hit it off with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge in person, sharing her personal story of perseverance and self-motivation.

"I thought it was really cool," Laulu said of the draft process. "(Coughlan) was saying that they really liked me, and it was just crazy. I didn't know they liked me this much."

The story doesn't end here.

Laulu is joining one of the deepest position groups on the Colts' roster, and he'll have to work as hard as ever to make an impact as a rookie.

That's where the example his mother set all those years ago comes back into the picture.

Now that Laulu has made it into the front door with the NFL, he's looking to move in for an extended stay.

"I've always had that mindset of working hard, putting my head down and just going to work," he said. "And so that got me to Hawaii. And that got me from Hawaii to Oklahoma and got me from Oklahoma to Indianapolis. So it's pretty crazy how life works."