UCLA LB Laiatu Latu hearing no concerns over neck history

ByJeff Legwold ESPN logo
Wednesday, February 28, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS -- UCLA outside linebacker Laiatu Latu believes his unlikely comeback from college football "retirement" will extend into the NFL draft's first round.

Latu said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine that "no teams have talked about any kind of concern" over the neck injury that kept him on the sideline at Washington for two years. Latu added, to this point in Indianapolis, that "being out here I haven't had to do too many medicals [exams], just like everybody else."

"I've been dreaming of the NFL since I was a kid, and I never gave up on it all," Latu said. "... I just understood what I wanted to do and that I wanted to get back to playing football again. ... [The neck] was never a concern for them."

Latu is considered by many NFL evaluators to be the most technically advanced pass-rusher in the draft. But he also has one of the biggest medical questions of any prospect at the combine.

The Sacramento, California, native did not play in 2020 or 2021 after he was advised to "medically retire" from football by the Washington staff. Latu had suffered a neck injury in preseason workouts for the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season and later had surgery -- Latu said Wednesday he had neck fusion surgery -- to try to repair lingering numbness.

Doctors at Washington would not clear him to return and advised him not to play football. His mother, Kerry, however, researched Latu's injury and kept coming across Dr. Robert Watkins' name before arranging for Latu to see the noted back and neck surgeon in late 2021.

Latu said Watkins cleared him to return to football after a battery of tests, but Washington would still not clear him to play for the Huskies. He transferred to UCLA in January 2022.

"[Watkins] just looked at my scans and cleared me," Latu said. "Because he's had guys with the same, similar stuff, like Danielle Hunter and Peyton Manning, and he really just told me I would be able to play football."

Two seasons, 23.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss later, Latu is poised to be one of the most sought-after pass-rushers on draft boards across the league.

Latu, who is the No. 14 player on analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s most recent Big Board, won both the Lombardi and Hendricks awards this past season -- for the best lineman and best defensive end in college football, respectively -- and was the Bruins' first first-team All-America selection since Eric Kendricks in 2014.

Like all the defensive linemen and linebackers invited to the combine, Latu was scheduled to go through medical exams Tuesday and Wednesday with his on-field workout Thursday. He said Wednesday that he was prepared to work out at the combine and put up "low numbers."