UCLA's Laiatu Latu goes from medically retired player to hot NFL prospect

National edge Laiatu Latu of UCLA runs through drills during practice for the Senior Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in Mobile, Ala. Latu is a hot NFL draft prospect two years after resuming his football career. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Laiatu Latu writes the three letters above his notes from class and football meetings: LYL.

“Like your last” has become a mantra for Latu to do everything like it’s the last time he's going to do it, without regrets that he didn’t give it his best, every time. It carries a deeper meaning for the UCLA defensive end who has gone from an injury that appeared career-ending to a hot NFL draft commodity and one of the top prospects at the Senior Bowl, which is set for Saturday.

For two years, it seemed like he had played his last down of football. Latu was medically retired from football at Washington after a preseason neck injury in 2020.

Sidelined from the sport for two years but determined to get back to it.

“All the while when I wasn’t playing football, I just had the determination and the mind-set that I was going to be able to come back and play football and prove to the world what I could do,” said Latu, who was picked as one of the comeback players of the year in 2022.

He became one of college football’s top pass rushers the past two seasons at UCLA and is a likely first-round draft pick.

Latu needed surgery after a neck injury suffered during preseason practice in 2020, which resulted in a medical retirement and two years off the field. He transferred to UCLA in January 2022 and was cleared by doctors to resume playing.

Latu had 85 tackles, 35 tackles for loss and 23 1/2 sacks in two seasons at UCLA. Last season he became the first UCLA player to win the Lombardi Award and the Ted Hendricks Award, leading the nation in tackles for loss per game (1.8).

He is driven by what he went through at Washington, and the desire to help his three siblings and his mother, who worked multiple jobs after Latu's father left when he was 5 or 6. There's also the desire to prove he can still play the game to the people who said he never would again.

Latu's Bruins position coach Ikaika Malloe also worked with him at Washington, where Latu played in 12 games as a freshman. Malloe said Latu’s intense focus on perfecting his craft — studying his hand placement and footwork and doing endless repetitions so that doing it right is second nature — separates him from others.

“Not too many people go through that with a career-ending injury and then have an opportunity to come back,” said Malloe, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in January. “He did, and so his whole mindset was like every single day, he’s going to make sure he attacks it and competes.”

The two participated in a Bible study together, and both shed tears over the apparent end to Latu’s football career and the struggles to cope with that prospect. The relationship has evolved to where Malloe felt like “a proud parent” when Latu returned to the field.

“It’s been really special to watch him do what he has done,” Malloe said. “He’s really changed everything in terms of my process when somebody has the belief that he has. To never say quit, that changed my whole meaning of that word.

“I think he has so much more growth in him, and I’m excited to see what he does in the NFL.”

So is his Senior Bowl coach on the National team, New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich.

“What a demonstration of his love for this game,” Ulbrich said. “So many guys would have just hung it up. That’s a real thing, neck fusion and all that he’s been through and then a team medically retires you.

“I think he shows tremendous love and passion for this game, the fact that he searched to find a college that would clear him and allow him to play.”

There’s little doubt the 6-foot-5, 261-pounder has the physical skills, size, frame and speed.

“But it goes beyond that,” Ulbrich said. “He checks those boxes, but that’s not what makes him great. What makes him great is he’s a truly skilled rusher. Like he understands how to pass rush.

“For all these young guys, a lot of times you don’t see that. So it’s fairly rare. He’s a guy that can beat you with his physical skill but more often he’s going to beat you with his pass rush skill. To me, those are the guys that really thrive at the next level.”

They do it LL. Like Latu.


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