Laiatu Latu’s football career is over.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior outside linebacker has been forced to medically retire because of a neck injury sustained last fall, UW head coach Jimmy Lake announced Wednesday. Latu will remain with the program as a student assistant.
“We consulted I believe about five of the best specialists in the country, guys that work with different NFL clubs where different players have had the same injury,” Lake said following the Huskies’ first practice of the spring. “Of course with our medical personnel, we exhausted every professional we could think of to make sure this was the proper decision. So this decision came in the last couple months, after consultation with all the medical professionals.
“It was a tough decision to make for sure, but it’s for the safety of our players first and foremost. We never want to put anybody in danger of possibly not being able to use his extremities the rest of his life. We’d never want that to happen to anybody.”
A Sacramento, Calif., native, Latu did not play in the 2020 season with the previously unspecified injury. As a true freshman in 2019, he produced 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks in 12 games.
Last fall, prior to the injury, former UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said Latu’s improvement was “night and day, in a good way. 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.”
Unfortunately, his season ended before it began.
Before signing with the Huskies in 2019, Latu — a Jesuit High School standout and rugby star — was ranked as a four-star recruit, the No. 5 defensive end and the No. 98 prospect nationally by 247Sports.
Despite Latu’s retirement, UW does return its starting outside linebackers — junior Zion Tupuola-Fetui and senior Ryan Bowman — this fall. Tupuola-Fetui, in particular, posted seven sacks and three forced fumbles in four games last season — en route to being named a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and a second-team All-American by The Athletic and Walter Camp.
The Huskies’ outside linebacker room also includes senior Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin, sophomore Bralen Trice and redshirt freshmen Sav’ell Smalls, Cooper McDonald, Jordan Lolohea and Carson Bruener. Three-star freshman Maurice Heims is slated to arrive in Seattle this summer.
“Laiatu wasn’t with us last year sadly, but that group progressed and played really, really well,” Lake said. “Obviously Zion was an all-conference player, with all the production that he had. We have some young talent and some old guys. We’ve got Ryan Bowman and Jordan Lolohea, who hopefully you’re going to see more of coming up. We have Sav’ell (Smalls). We added Jeremiah (Martin), and we’ve got some young guys coming in — Maurice Heims.
“It’s a group that I believe had a lot of snaps last training camp and last fall in four games, and they played extremely well, and we’re adding to the room. Of course we would love to have Laiatu back, though.”
But, though Latu won’t be wearing a uniform, he isn’t going anywhere.
“Our hearts go out to him and his family,” Lake said. “This is part of this physical game. Unfortunately, we’re always going to have to deal with some difficult injuries like this. We’re going to be surrounding him with love and support. He’s going to be with us until he finishes his degree.”
No sign of Newton
UW junior tailback Richard Newton was not present at practice on Wednesday. When asked to address the absence, Lake said only that “there’s going to be players that have different things that go on. Obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. We’re testing these guys all the time, and there’s going to be guys with different nicks and injuries and school issues that happen.”
Of course, the 6-0, 215-pound Newton notably ran for 122 yards, 5.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns in the first two games last season, before sitting out the final two games for an unspecified reason. Against both Utah and Stanford, he was in uniform on the sideline but never actually entered the game.
As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Newton rushed for 498 yards and 4.3 yards per carry and led the Huskies with 11 total touchdowns in just 10 games.
Assessing the arrivals
Four transfers — quarterback Patrick O’Brien, wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk, defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles and outside linebacker Jeremiah Martin — made their UW practice debuts on Wednesday. And of that group, Radley-Hiles and Polk are expected to make the most immediate impact.
A three-year starter at Oklahoma and former four-star recruit, Radley-Hiles worked with the second-team defense at nickelback.
Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t take him long to settle in with the starters.
“I know this: he’s been bugging our coaches about what his new techniques are, the new scheme, chomping at the bit,” Lake said of Radley-Hiles, who could slide into Elijah Molden’s old spot. “He played with a high motor at the last college he played at, which we love. We saw him out of high school, and he played with a high motor. He’s extremely tough. Right now he’s putting a lot of hard work in.
“He’s got a ways to go, just like a lot of these guys do. But we feel like we added a physical competitor to our roster.”
And, after five wide receivers transferred out of the program this offseason, an incoming transfer is expected to help at that position as well. In his freshman season at Texas Tech in 2020, the 6-2, 190-pound Polk logged 28 catches for 264 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games.
Oh, and he didn’t drop a pass the entire season.
With a full four seasons of eligibility remaining, Polk may end up being UW’s premier transfer portal prize.
“He was a very physical, tough player, from the film that we watched at his previous university,” Lake said. “He had some really good production as a freshman for a team that plays in a good conference and plays some good competition. We liked his size and he had really good hands.
“He was from the same high school (Lufkin High) as (freshman running back) Caleb Berry, and he was a team captain. The coaches down there and all of his teammates have a lot of respect for him. So character-wise, he really fit us.
“We think this player is going to add a lot to that wide receiver room and what we want that wide receiver room to look like — tough, physical, and guys that love football.”
Kizer and Gilchrist move on
Tight end Jacob Kizer and defensive back Isaiah Gilchrist — both of whom opted out of the 2020 season — have decided not to return to the team, Lake confirmed Wednesday. One other player who opted out last fall, sophomore wide receiver Taj Davis, did return.
In 33 career games at UW, Kizer — a 6-5, 254-pound tight end from Salem, Ore. — caught three passes for 25 yards. Gilchrist — a Bellevue native and former four-star recruit — made eight total tackles in 12 career games.
- UW returns for its second spring practice at 8:30 a.m. on Friday.