National Football League
UCLA DE Laiatu Latu’s journey from medically retired to first-round prospect
National Football League

UCLA DE Laiatu Latu’s journey from medically retired to first-round prospect

Updated Mar. 18, 2024 5:17 p.m. ET

PASADENA, Calif. — In his quest to improve his game, UCLA's Laiatu Latu has sought advice from one of the best in the business, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby.

Latu said Crosby, T.J. Watt and fellow UCLA product Jaelan Phillips are NFL players he emulates because of their similar body type. Latu and Crosby share the same representation, and Latu said the two edge rushers have been sharing texts throughout the pre-draft process.

"He's always working another move," Latu said when asked what he likes about Crosby. "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 is considered a technician by NFL draft analysts, one of the most polished pass rushers in this year's draft. At 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds, Latu ran a 4.64-second 40-yard time and posted a 32-inch vertical jump at the NFL Scouting Combine last month — good numbers for a guy his size.


He went through positional drills and pass drops at his pro day last week, which drew representatives from 31 NFL teams, including Raiders head coach Antonio Pierce. 

"That's something I definitely wanted to showcase," said Latu, who had two interceptions for the Bruins in 2023. "Just my versatility with dropping, flipping my hips and being able to break to the ball. Hand-eye coordination with dropping and running. I just wanted to show all that."

FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang ranks Latu as the No. 16 prospect on his Big Board and the top edge rusher in the class.

"Latu comes with a pro-ready assortment of polished pass-rush moves, as well as prototypical size, strength and flexibility," Rang said. "Some have concerns about a previous neck injury, but the tape and production [23.5 sacks in 25 games at UCLA] is undeniable."

[READ MORE: 2024 NFL Draft prospect rankings: Top 100 big board led by Caleb Williams]

Latu played his first two collegiate seasons at Washington but suffered a neck injury during a spring practice his sophomore year and was told he would never play again.

He was medically retired, but he still wanted to play. He transferred to UCLA, where doctors eventually cleared him. With a second chance, he did not miss a game during his two seasons with the Bruins. 

"There was never any doubt in my mind," Latu said of continuing to play football. "But when you are told you'll never do something again, you're just kind of like, ‘Damn, I'm really being told this. That's crazy.' But I never really got into that dark place where I felt like giving up on everything. I always continued pushing on, trying to get better at everything I'm doing."

And get better he did, to the point where NFL draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah calls Latu a pass-rushing "artist."

"Latu is a technician," Jeremiah said. "I compare him to Trey Hendrickson. He is really good with his hands. He can win a variety of ways. He has a natural feel for pass rush. Some parts of the pass rush remind me of wide receivers — they are route runners. There's an artistry to it. Latu is an artist."

Latu said there is a method to the madness of his pass-rush moves.

"It's hard to predict what I'm doing," he said. "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. 

"It's just like a reactionary thing. So I'm running, I'm staying on my track, staying on my angle. I'm knowing if [the offensive lineman is] a high puncher, a low puncher, knowing if he's vertical center or lateral center." 

In his first mock draft, Rang had Latu going No. 27 to the Arizona Cardinals, due to all the offensive players being picked high and potentially due to lingering questions concerning the neck injury. If Latu does last that long, some team could get a very productive player in the second half of the first round.

"He's just a complete football player, somebody whose why is bigger than 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 what type of dedication he has to ball. Anybody that's had something taken away from them, they go extra hard to get it back. 

"And being the first-rounder he is, he's definitely showed that." 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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