Laiatua Latu says UCLA’s Pro Day was ‘surreal’

Ric Tapia - The Sporting Tribune
The Sporting Tribune's Fernando Ramirez on UCLA defensive end Laiatua Latu living out his dream now thanks to his perseverance.

LOS ANGELES — As every UCLA player warmed up to work out in front of 31 NFL representatives, Laiatua Latu kneeled, looking over The Wasserman Football Center.

He was taking it all in because this opportunity was almost taken from him.

“It’s been surreal,” Latu said.

Latu is projected to be a first-round draft pick in next month’s NFL Draft in Detroit. But this journey has faced its challenges.

When Latu entered his sophomore year at Washington, he suffered an accident during spring practice. After some time, the team doctors determined it would be too dangerous to let him play, and he was forced to medically retire.

He stayed positive.

“There’s never any doubt in my mind,” Latu explained. “But when you’re told you will never be able to do something again. You just kind of like, ‘damn, I am really being told this? It’s crazy.'”

Latu entered the transfer portal to help find a team that would let him live out his dream. He moved to Brentwood to attend UCLA, where they cleared him to play football.

The defensive end went on to have a breakout junior season after sacking the opposing quarterback 10.5 times, adding 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

“It’s hard to predict what I’m doing,” he said on what he does best. “It’s not like I’m working a lot of moves, but I have them in my bag. I look at pass rush as being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. And really, those moves will come out of me.”

He took it up a level in his senior year, sacking the quarterback 13 times, 21.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.

At last month’s NFL Combine, Latu experienced another moment that made his realize how blessed he was to get a second opportunity.

“Lining up for that 40, my heart was pumping, and it was one of the surreal moments for me,” Latu said.

The 6-foot-5, 259-pound defensive end ran a 4.64 40-yard dash and posted a 32-inch vertical—for a guy his size, that is pretty impressive.

“Just looking back at the combine and tweaking up some things that I think I could’ve gotten better at,” Latu said about his mindset. “I’m just focused on football and not any times or anything like that.”

Many draft experts view him as one of the best pass rushers in the draft after he recorded 23.5 sacks in two seasons with UCLA.

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has him going 21 to the Miami Dolphins, where he would join a player with a similar story: former Bruin Jaelen Phillips.

Phillips was forced to medically retire after multiple accidents on and off the field at UCLA. He didn’t give up, however, and transferred to Miami to finish his story.

“Got to see him (Phillips) play, so kind of picked up some things from there,” Latu said. “Hopefully, going into the league, I’ll get to get in contact with him and pick his brain a little bit.”

Phillips is one player that Latu models his game after, but the player at the top of his list is Raiders superstar Maxx Crosby.

“He’s always working another move,” Latu said. “If the first move doesn’t work, he’s always countering back. If they stay on the counter, he’s always spinning back. It’s always something with him, and that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on, just how smooth I can be throwing as many moves as possible in a repetitive way.”

Latu and Crosby have spoken via text, and the UCLA defensive end stated it was a humbling experience.

During his pro day, Latu didn’t have much more he needed to do, but he wanted to show his versatility in coverage, the cone drill, and the short shuttle.

“[He’s] somebody whose ‘why’ is bigger than just money,” UCLA head coach DeShaun Foster said. “For him to come back from the type of injury that he’s had, that lets you know the type of dedication he has to ball.”

Latu doesn’t know which team will draft him in late April, and he doesn’t know where he will live.

All he knows is that he will get the chance to do two things: live out his NFL dream and chase after quarterbacks.

“I’m living everyday like it’s my last,” Latu said. “Showing dudes that I love this game maybe more than they might have thought. And really [to] just inspire the world with what I went through. … If you got the love and dedication for something, you’re going to make it happen.”