After his final season at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California, ended, Laiatu Latu kept coming back.
The coaches couldn’t make him return for workouts. No requirement mandated he show up at 6:30 a.m. And by that point in his career, Latu had nothing to prove. But every morning, along with a handful of fellow seniors, he would show up anyway.
So when Jesuit head coach Marlon Blanton was asked about Latu’s early impact at Washington, he barely let the question end before he stated — firmly — that he wasn’t at all surprised.
“You can’t teach his size, his athleticism,” Blanton said during a phone interview this week. “You can’t teach those things. Obviously, you accompany that with how hard he works and then you know he’s going to have a chance.”
Now a true freshman outside linebacker for the Huskies, Latu was a four-star prospect coming out of high school. Along with UW, he also had offers from USC, Alabama, Cal, Georgia, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford and Utah, among others.
Toward the end of fall camp, UW head coach Chris Petersen was asked for a list of first-year players — other than now-starting safety Cameron Williams — that had made the strongest impression. Latu was one of the first freshmen mentioned, so it wasn’t shocking when he saw time in each of the Huskies’ first two games. And since Petersen made it clear that several members of the 2019 class won’t redshirt this season, it seems likely that Latu will play in more than four games.
He’s made a solid case for snaps. Latu finished with two tackles in his debut, including a tackle for loss in the end zone that resulted in a safety. He then recorded a half sack — the first of his college career — during the loss to Cal.
The Huskies play Hawaii at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium (Pac-12 Network).
“He’s impressed us from day one,” Petersen said of Latu during his press conference on Monday. “Just kind of his whole mentality, how he works, how he competes. He’s got a good vibe to him for a young guy.”
Junior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman agreed. Latu’s impressive build — he’s 6 feet ,4 inches and 275 pounds — and athleticism were immediately obvious. But what’s impressed Bowman the most is how eager Latu has been to learn.
“He’s got like that eighth-grade mentality that we talk about here where he’s absorbing all information,” Bowman said. “Whatever he’s getting coached to do, he’s going to absorb that and be able to replicate it on the field. He’s got that mentality to get better every day so it’s exciting to just be playing with Laiatu.”
Latu wasn’t always so receptive, Blanton said. His development happened in steps, and he took the first when he started playing varsity football as a sophomore. Back then, he was still learning the importance of following instruction from coaches and teammates. But once he did, the foundation was set for everything else.
When Latu was a junior, he combined that newfound hunger to learn with an ever-strengthening work ethic. It showed in practice, where he went all-out in every drill. Blanton can still picture Latu, playing defense for the scout-team, sprinting after running backs when they broke free.
“Laiatu would be chasing him down.” Blanton said, “not just to tackle him but for the fact that I’m chasing him down.”
As Latu entered his senior season, both of those qualities merged to form a player who openly cared about the program and his teammates. After that, Blanton said, his play “went to another level.” He finished his senior year with 94 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
“He learned and understood, which I think this is very helpful, that he’s not just playing for himself but he’s playing for the people around him,” Blanton said. “That care is going to make you play a little harder. .. He said it verbally and then he played with passion — ‘I’m playing for you and I’m playing for you, my brother. And I’m playing for you.’ And then he backed it up with his play in practice and his play in the games.’”
By the time Latu was selecting a college, he was looking for a place that would continue the lessons he learned in high school. Latu searched for a staff that cared about its players as people, Blanton said, not just football players. He believed he found the right fit with the Huskies.
“He’s a stand-up dude,” Bowman said. “He deserves it. It’s a lot of fun playing with him a guy, a freshman, showing him the ropes. It’s really fun to just work together. … (He’s) really receptive. He just soaks everything in.”