What will life on the field look like without Laiatu Latu?

The Washington Huskies got a sneak peek last season.

On Wednesday, following UW’s first spring practice, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake announced that Latu — a 6-foot-5, 270-pound outside linebacker and former four-star recruit — has medically retired due to a neck injury sustained last fall. After being touted as one of UW’s most dynamic young defensive players, Latu missed all four games in 2020 with the previously unspecified injury.

But Latu’s absence didn’t necessarily spell doom for the UW defense. In his place, redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui developed into a second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 performer — amassing seven sacks and three forced fumbles in just four games. Senior Ryan Bowman also remained a steadying force on the opposite end of the line.

Head coach Jimmy Lake fist pumps a player while the team stretches during spring practice at the east practice field on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
UW spring football

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In the admittedly abbreviated 2020 season, UW finished tied for 2nd in the Pac-12 and 45th nationally with 2.5 sacks per game — an improvement over the program’s production in 2019 (2.23, 58th nationally) and 2018 (1.71, 100th).

But, on the other hand, the Huskies managed an average of just 4.25 tackles for loss — which ranked an abysmal 11th in the Pac-12 and 118th in the nation. That output continues a trend of vanishing disruption in the last three seasons specifically.

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Tackles for loss per game

2020: 4.25 (118th nationally, 11th Pac-12)

2019: 5.46 (87th, 9th)

2018: 4.57 (118th, 11th)

2017: 6.62 (40th, 3rd)

2016: 6.5 (40th, 3rd)

2015: 7.0 (27th, 4th)

2014: 6.5 (39th, 6th)

In a defensive system that 1.) doesn’t love to blitz, and 2.) leans heavily on sub-packages and abundant defensive backs, the outside linebackers are entrusted with sacking the quarterback and consistently penetrating the line of scrimmage.

So, how can the Huskies improve in that area without Latu?

To begin with, Tupuola-Fetui can’t be satisfied with his redshirt sophomore season.

“There’s a lot more there (for him to improve on),” Lake said. “It sounds like you were just in my meeting after practice. I pointed that out — not to him — but to our players that maybe had a good year last year. The three worst words are, ‘I got it’. As soon as you think you’ve got it and you’ve made it, that’s when you’re going to be average or below average or you’re going to get passed by.

“For Zion, he’s got a lot to work on. There’s some pass rushes that he should have had even more sacks on last year. He needs to build his repertoire and his changeups on how to beat offensive linemen. He needs to play the run better. He needs to play the pass better. Everybody’s got room to grow, including myself.”

Indeed, there’s plenty of room for growth in the outside linebacker room. The 6-1, 280-pound Bowman impressed with 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in 2019 — earning All-Pac-12 second-team honors. He established himself as a versatile, if underappreciated, performer — explosive enough to rush the passer and strong enough to slide inside on passing downs. But, after missing the final two games last fall, it’ll be interesting to see if he can return to form in his sixth and final season.

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And, with Latu’s unfortunate retirement, the addition of Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin suddenly makes a lot more sense. The San Bernardino, Calif., product compiled an incredible 30.5 sacks in his senior season at Cajon High School, but managed just 11 tackles with three tackles for loss and zero sacks in three uneventful seasons in College Station, Texas.

Assuming Tupuola-Fetui and Bowman stay healthy, Martin — who arrives in Seattle this spring with two seasons of eligibility — doesn’t need to start. But considering UW’s continuous rotations, the 6-5, 262-pound pass-rusher will have an opportunity to make his mark on Montlake.

As for young talent, UW offers redshirt sophomore Bralen Trice and a quartet of redshirt freshmen in Sav’ell Smalls, Cooper McDonald, Jordan Lolohea and Carson Bruener (who is now listed as an outside linebacker after lining up inside last season). Three-star incoming freshman Maurice Heims will join the fold this summer as well.

Specifically, both Smalls and McDonald saw the field as true freshmen in 2020 — though they combined for a measly nine tackles with nary a tackle for loss or sack. The 6-3, 255-pound Smalls signed with Washington as a five-star recruit out of Kennedy Catholic in the 2020 class, and McDonald earned rave reviews in his first training camp on campus. Under the tutelage of co-defensive coordinator and first-year outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe, both should be expected to make more consistent contributions in 2021.

From a depth perspective, Washington has the numbers to overcome the loss of Latu. But in recent seasons, that position has rarely reached its potential.

Which is where “ZTF” and Bowman, the team’s starters and leaders at outside linebacker, come in.

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On Wednesday, in the first practice of the spring, Tupuola-Fetui dropped into coverage and completed an acrobatic interception of early enrollee freshman quarterback Sam Huard.

“At first glance, I think it was a really good play by Zion,” Lake said after the practice ended. “I was kind of goading them all a little bit in the beginning of practice. In the outside linebacker room I said, ‘Hey, Cooper McDonald is going to be the first guy that gets an interception this morning.’ And Zion looked at me and was like, ‘OK, it’s going to be like that?’ I go, ‘Yeah, Cooper’s getting the first interception, for sure, in your room.’

“And who do you think he ran up to right after he got that interception? He ran right up to me and gave me some stuff right back. It’s fun, to get those guys going a little bit.”

And if Lake or Malloe can’t get them going, maybe Latu will.

“He was one of our smarter players,” Lake said of Latu, who had surgery three weeks ago and will remain with the program as a student assistant. “He’s going to add value to our team by being around our guys and helping these guys with their techniques and their fundamentals.

“You hear it from the coach, but it’s always good when you hear it from a player as well and you hear him speak the knowledge of what we’re trying to say at their level. He’ll add tremendous value to us.”