Laiatu Latu, once medically retired from football, now might be NFL draft's best defender

INDIANAPOLIS – If you’re an NFL defensive coordinator desperate to douse an offense that’s on fire, Laiatu Latu might be your guy.


UCLA’s former star pass rusher revealed Wednesday at the league's annual scouting combine that he’s already exploring subsequent careers.

"If football didn’t work out, especially after all of this, I’d love to get into firefighting and work my way up to chief," said Latu, who’s met with Los Angeles-based fire stations and done workouts in 50-pound vests that simulate the burden of carrying gear into a burning building.

The All-American also admitted sliding down a firehouse pole is on his "bucket list."

Yet for Latu, there’s also a practicality to assessing life after football given the game has been taken away from him once. Before his sophomore season at the University of Washington in 2020, he suffered a neck injury in practice that ultimately led Huskies team doctors to medically retire him. He eventually had fusion surgery, transferred to UCLA and was cleared to resume his career.

"I never let it get the best of me," he said of his football limbo. "I continuously worked out, I continuously got stronger, I continuously worked on my pass-rush moves and stuff like that. Really just locked in, never gave up on my dreams – I had dreams of being in this moment, being in the NFL since (I was) a kid, and I never gave up on that. God was with me through it all and really blessed me to be here in this moment."

UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu, left, pressures Arizona State quarterback Trenton Bourguet during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.
UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu, left, pressures Arizona State quarterback Trenton Bourguet during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

Leading up to this moment, Latu – he models his game after top NFL sack men Maxx Crosby and T.J. Watt – has put out his share of metaphorical fires on the football field.

In two seasons with the Bruins, he racked up 35 tackles for loss, 23½ sacks, five forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions. He was the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year in 2023, when he also earned the Lombardi Award and Ted Hendricks Award for being the country’s best collegiate defensive end after posting an FBS-best 1.8 TFLs per game.

"He’s so special, it’s fun to do a scouting report on a guy like that," Latu’s former UCLA teammate and roommate, Gabriel Murphy, told USA TODAY Sports.

"He has tremendous hands, some of the best bend I’ve ever seen in a pass rusher. He plays the run, too – he’s a great run defender, doesn’t get a lot of credit for playing the run. He just has a high motor. He’s a great guy, great kid, and I love that dude – hopefully I can play with him or compete with him down the road."

Some of Latu’s best performances came in UCLA’s most meaningful games – against crosstown archrival USC and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, widely projected to be the 2024 draft’s first selection. Latu faced Williams and the Trojans twice, finishing with 11 tackles and 3½ sacks.

"It was crazy getting after Caleb Williams, we didn’t really let him escape the pocket too much," Latu said of the Bruins’ 38-20 victory last season.

"Really just dominated that game."

Yet he dominated most games in 2023, failing to register a TFL in just one of his 12 appearances while piling up 12½ in his final six games. In a draft class where there’s no clear-cut top defender – it seems possible only one or two go in the top 10, likely none in the top five – he could be the first off the board, Alabama's Dallas Turner, Florida State's Jared Verse and Texas' Byron Murphy II potentially among Latu's competitors.

"Latu is a technician, man," said NFL Network chief draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "I compare him to (Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowler) 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.

"There's an artistry to it. Latu is an artist. He is really, really gifted that way."

The 6-5, 261-pounder, who’s shown the flexibility to be a base end or outside linebacker depending on scheme and cites his ability bend underneath offensive tackles as his best physical attribute, has met with several teams at the combine. One was the Miami Dolphins, who spent a first-round pick three years ago on pass rusher Jaelan Phillips, another former UCLA player who returned after college injuries had seemingly ended his career.

"I know that he kinda went through something similar when he was almost medically retired – or pretty much medically retired," Latu said of Phillips, whom he hasn’t yet been in contact with.

"It’s definitely encouraging to hear that, definitely helps me get through a lot, too."

The next waypoint to navigate is Thursday’s on-field testing at Lucas Oil Stadium, where Latu hopes to shine in drills and run a sub-4.7 40-yard dash. But he may have cleared his biggest hurdle, saying teams have expressed no concerns about his neck, nor has he had to undergo more intensive medical testing than any other combine prospect.

"Every time I was told, ‘You probably wouldn’t be able to play football again,’ it wasn’t a low point," Latu reflected. "I kinda just took it for what it was. It was hard not being able to play football, the sport I’ve loved since the age of 6. I really just locked into myself, you know, (saying), ‘Don’t worry about what they’re saying, God has a plan.’ And I’ve made it this far."

He certainly impressed New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who coached Latu at the Senior Bowl earlier this month.

"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," said Ulbrich.

"I think he shows tremendous love and passion for this game."

Perhaps enough to make Latu a five-alarm defender once he reaches the NFL.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Laiatu Latu, once medically retired, may be NFL draft's best defender