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University of Washington Huskies Football
Sports >  UW football

Witness the wreckage: whether it’s rugby or football, Washington’s Laiatu Latu speaks a universal language

California quarterback Chase Garbers, center, is sacked by Washington linebacker Laiatu Latu, left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
California quarterback Chase Garbers, center, is sacked by Washington linebacker Laiatu Latu, left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – You don’t need to know the rules to spot the wreckage.

Because, while rugby can be a complicated sport, Laiatu Latu’s senior highlight tape speaks a universal language. It’s six consecutive minutes of unfiltered physicality. It’s the Death Star methodically pulverizing puny planets. It’s Joel Embiid dunking on physically inferior fans. It’s a lion preying on an unfortunate pack of overmatched gazelles. It’s a monster truck rolling over entire rows of broken Buicks. It’s the encyclopedia entry for unpadded punishment.

It’s something you simply have to see … and then can never un-see.

And at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, John Shorey saw it all. He saw Latu – now a sophomore outside linebacker at Washington – simultaneously excel in a pair of sports. He saw him grow (literally) into a national football recruit, racking up 94 tackles and 29.5 tackles for loss in a prolific senior season. He saw USC, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oregon, UW and many more come calling. He saw multiple college coaches pop up at rugby practice to witness the physicality firsthand.

He saw a 6-foot-4, 270-pound athlete who could do so many different things.

And not all of them took place on a football field.

“Over those 23 years (as head coach of Jesuit’s rugby team) we won 10 national championships and I’ve had 15 of my former players go on to play for the US Eagles national team,” Shorey said this week. “So we’ve had some unique athletes play while I’ve been there. But Laiatu was by far the most physically dominating player that we’ve had.

“His size is tremendous. But his ability to run … he runs like a running back. I really thought when he was getting recruited he could easily play fullback, tight end, be anything, because he has fast feet, he has good hands and he has a great work rate. He was definitely a man amongst boys, and we were happy to have him.”

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. “When Laiatu showed up as a freshman,” Shorey says, “he had hair down to past his waist. He was a skinny kid. He probably weighed 150, 160 (pounds) as a freshman, and he really didn’t like getting hit.”

The following season, he arrived five inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.

“I didn’t even recognize him at first,” said Shorey, who also played football with former UW head coach Chris Petersen at UC Davis. “He had really big legs. He started filling into his upper body. He got taller. We just looked at him and we go, ‘Laiatu, you’re just too big to be playing on the JV team. You’re a varsity player now.’ He really was able to dominate older kids.”

Though, it should be said, some of those older kids opted for survival instead.

“There was a couple times he hit people so hard we didn’t know if that kid would get up,” Shorey said. “And to be quite honest with you, a lot of people didn’t want to tackle him. So there was a lot of people kind of tripping on the grass before they got to him so they didn’t have to deal with him.”

But dominating older kids has proven more difficult at Washington. As a true freshman last fall, Latu – who led Jesuit to two rugby national titles before signing with UW in a purple bow tie in 2019 – appeared in 12 games and contributed 16 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. He served as a backup behind surging redshirt sophomore Joe Tryon, who topped all Huskies with 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

Now, after Tryon declared for the NFL draft, Latu is expected to slide into a starting spot opposite senior Ryan Bowman. And while he didn’t put on five inches and 40 pounds during the elongated offseason, Latu’s progress has been apparent nevertheless.

“(His improvement) is night and day, in a good way,” UW defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski said. “With Joe Tryon’s progression and his improvement from being a freshman to a redshirt freshman, Laiatu’s further along. He’s practicing extremely well, making a lot of plays. I’m very impressed with him and I expect big things out of him this year. It’s been impressive so far.”

Not as impressive, perhaps, as the trail of broken bones in his rugby highlight tape. But the Huskies need Latu to make significant strides all the same. A year after UW finished 58th nationally in sacks per game (2.23) and 87th in tackles for loss per game (5.46), it’ll be up to Latu, Bowman, sophomore Zion Tupuola-Fetui, redshirt freshman Bralen Trice and true freshman Sav’ell Smalls to provide a more consistent pass rush.

And that all starts Nov. 7 against Cal – the program where Latu’s “little” brother, 6-6 2021 tight end Keleki Latu, is committed.

Shorey, for one, will host a watch party for the game at his house in Sacramento.

And if all goes well, there could be many more watch parties – for football or rugby – in his future.

“Laiatu could play professional rugby tomorrow,” Shorey said. “He could go to England tomorrow, make 300 or 400,000 pounds playing in the premiership (professional rugby league) and play for the next 10, 12 years no problem.

“So I go, ‘If you’ve got a choice between playing rugby or the NFL, what would you do?’ He just kind of looked at me and goes, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’ I go, ‘Well, it’s a good problem to have, brother.’ He kind of nodded and laughed. But that’s the type of kid he is. He’s going to have that choice, and whatever he chooses to do, he’ll be very successful and do very well for himself.”

On the surface, that may appear a somewhat obvious decision. But in 2018, Latu told 247Sports that “I enjoy rugby more than football. If rugby were a sport that gave scholarships and stuff like that, I’d probably have chosen to play that.

“I still love football, but I love rugby more. It’s a non-stop sport and you get to carry the ball, make tackles, stuff like that. It also helped me be a better football player too.”

For now, Latu doesn’t need to make any life-altering decisions. He can attend practice, improve – and pulverize opposing planets. He can speak a loud language that we all understand.

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