UCLA’s Laiatu Latu says he still feels he has a lot to prove

What’s left for Laiatu Latu to accomplish after being selected one of college football’s comeback players of the year?

Plenty.

That award wasn’t so much a destination as a launching point for what the UCLA edge rusher wants to do next.

Start with being a first-team All-American and leading the nation in sacks. Latu even has a number in mind for what it will take to do so.

“Fifteen,” the redshirt senior said Friday at Pac-12 media day at Resorts World Las Vegas. “I want to get every single quarterback multiple times.”

That means Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall might want to devise a counter for Latu’s favorite move — the Euro step — when the Chanticleers come to the Rose Bowl on Sept. 2. Just like in basketball, Latu’s Euro step relies on a head-fake and a step one way before cutting the other.

Offensive linemen trying to stop Latu can only hope they fare better than the doctors who told him he’d never play again. Latu was forced to sit out two seasons at Washington because of a neck injury before transferring to UCLA, where he gained medical clearance and led the Bruins with 12½ tackles for loss and 10½ sacks in 2022.

A reminder of his journey sits atop the dresser in his room. It’s a football embossed with his name that he was given for being chosen one of the comeback players of the year alongside Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim.

“It’s a crazy feeling,” Latu said of his rise to prominence. “I’ve never lost my passion and love for the game — it will always be there — but it’s just different being acknowledged for what you did on the field than being a nobody that I was.”

A season of tributes

Bill McGovern’s meaning to the Bruins was evident every time coach Chip Kelly started to discuss his longtime friend. Kelly could only go for a few seconds without tearing up.

“We lost a special guy,” Kelly said, his voice catching.

UCLA plans to honor the former defensive coordinator who died from cancer in May with helmet stickers in addition to a ceremony during one of the first home games of the season. Latu said players were also wearing new workout shirts bearing McGovern’s motto: “We can do hard things.”

“Everyone goes through hard times, everyone goes through adversity,” Latu said, “and just to know that you can overcome that, we can all do hard things.”

Kelly said McGovern, who missed five games last season while dealing with his health issues before returning to coach in the Sun Bowl, wanted to keep his battle private so that his two daughters and his players wouldn’t have to answer questions about how he was doing.

“That’s just the way Billy was,” Kelly said. “His courage, his toughness, his humility in that last year was an amazing thing. I think the biggest thing is — I said this at the funeral — is that man’s biggest fear isn’t death, man’s biggest fear is insignificance. Billy wasn’t afraid because of how significant his life was, the impact he had on so many people. He was at peace with, if this is what God selected for me, I’m good.”

 Bill McGovern walks with UCLA players.

UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern in September.

(Don Liebig / UCLA Athletics)

Fully forthcoming

Kelly provided the most comprehensive medical update of his six years at UCLA. It involved his dog.

The coach known for divulging little about injuries beyond saying players are “unavailable” said he cut a summer trip short to return home after the dog tore his anterior cruciate ligament. The dog was fitted with a brace and is expected to fully recover in two to four months, though some challenges remain.

“You can’t tell them that they tore their ACL,” Kelly said. “So if someone comes to the door, you’ve got to have eyes on him because he’s trying to jump up and greet them.”

Horsing around

When it comes to joint ownership of several racehorses with UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin and others, Kelly said he’s a passive participant.

“I am just along for the ride,” Kelly said.

The horses’ names indicate otherwise. Two are named after Kelly’s dogs, Henry Q and Wilson Q. Kelly said the latter was scheduled to run at Del Mar in September after winning one race and finishing second in another. Henry Q was on the verge of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby before being upset by a couple of long shots in the Sunland Derby.

“They’re always scheduled to run while we’re playing,” Kelly said, “so I’m not going to get a chance to see them in person. I am truly a spectator and I am the very silent, silent partial owner in this venture.”

Etc.

Kelly said linebacker Ale Kaho, who sat out last season with what appeared to be a foot or ankle injury, was expected to return for the start of training camp Aug. 2. … UCLA was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll, which was five spots too low for center Duke Clemens. “We feel like we’re No. 1,” Clemens said. “The expectation this year is kind of to win it all. It’s the last round for UCLA in the Pac-12. That’s pretty exciting.”