Ami Latu Learning on the Job

Replacing nine starters from one of the conference’s top defensive units from a year ago, means plugging in more young players than perhaps the coaches would like while also mixing and matching to find the right personnel fit at other positions. For sophomore Viliami Latu, it’s been more of the latter.

As a true freshman a year ago, Latu started at the SAM linebacker position. Nowadays, he’s wherever the coaching staff says they need him to be, and he’s more than willing to help out, no matter the challenge.

Viliami "Ami" Latu starred at Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High School where as a senior he recorded 107 tackles, four sacks, and three forced fumbles while playing alongside his twin brother Alani “AJ” Latu. A sure-tackler who possesses the ability to both play tough against the run but can also drop back into coverage, Latu was rated as a three-star prospect and the 18th best inside linebacker nationally by for the 2013 recruiting class.

While he touted more than a dozen scholarship offers from schools throughout the west, including offers from Fresno State, Oregon State, and San Diego State, the two twins’ desire to play together at the college level made their choice an easy one as they each committed to Arizona State in October of 2012, providing the Sun Devil with a linebacker tandem to build around for the future.

Ami Latu immediately put his linebacker skills to use last fall when he began Fall Camp backing up then-senior Steffon Martin at the SAM linebacker position. The emergence of Salamo Fiso ultimately forced him out of the two-deep but could not keep the talented frosh off the field as he appeared in 10 games for the Sun Devils as a key member on special teams, an experience that Latu hopes to use a springboard into 2014.

“My first game was the Wisconsin game,” he said recently after practice. “That was a big game for me, just walking out on to the field and looking at all the fans and stuff. It was really exciting, you know, learning and getting the feel of college football and how much faster and stronger people are. It’s just a new level than high school and you’ve just got to transition into it.”

With the departure of Carl Bradford, Latu transitioned to the Devil backer position during the spring where he split time with redshirt freshman Chans Cox. Despite taking first team reps at the position, Latu found himself on the move once again as the team arrived back on campus after the summer, this time to defensive end.

“It was actually the first day of meetings. They called me in and told me they decided to move me down to the defensive line because of how low on depth we were,” he said. “Being one of the bigger linebackers, I kind of understood. They moved me to defensive end, behind Marcus Hardison, and it’s been pretty fun getting to know the position and learning from some of the older guys who are veterans at the position.

“I’m just building up my skills by watching them and learning from my coach (Jackie Shipp) because I know I’ve got one of the best defensive line coaches out here. On the defensive side, I think we’re looking pretty good. We’re faster than we were last year. I think you’ll see good things this year.”

At 6-2 and 265 pounds, Latu estimates that he added an additional 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason in anticipation of playing at the Devilbacker position. While the move the defensive end, a position he admits he’s never played before, came as a surprise, Latu insists he’s willing to help out wherever needed on defense, no matter the challenge.

“They told me I was going to practice at Devil, so I was getting ready to play Devil and linebacker,” said Latu. “I’ve always been a linebacker. It’s a big change. It’s a big difference, but it’s cool with me.

“Like I said, I kind of understood. I’m a team player. I’m going to do what the coaches tell me and just work hard at it. They told me to play defensive end, so I took the job.”

Through the first two weeks of camp, Latu has found himself buried at defensive end behind Hardison, junior Edmond Boateng, and freshman Renell Wren, but continues to maintain a positive outlook while learning the details and techniques of his new position.

“Right now, all I have is the bullrush,” he said with a laugh. “I’m trying to learn how to make some moves, throw some hands in there and use my hands some more against the offensive linemen. With our offensive line, it’s pretty difficult. I think we have one of the best offensive lines in the country with how strong and fast they are. But at the end of the day, they’re making me better.”

One player that has stood out to Latu, who says his biggest challenge at first was just learning how to get in a three-point stance, through the first two weeks of camp has been freshman Tashon Smallwood. Smallwood, who also wears the number 90, has manned the starting Tiger position, formerly held by two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, for the last week and looks to contend for a starting position this season along the defensive line.

“I’ve been watching these guys, especially Tashon Smallwood, and learning how to get off the ball fast,” said Latu. “I’m really trying to learn from him and how he can read the ball and basically just trying to learn some pass moves, which are kind of difficult but it’s also been fun.

“Watching him as a true freshman, it’s pretty amazing to see how this young guy can move. He’s pretty explosive off the ball.”

When he isn’t putting in the hard work on the practice field, Latu says he’s been learning from roommates. The sophomore shares a house with his brother, Fiso, and offensive linemen Vi Teofilo, who he spends the most time with trying to learn ways to scheme against opposing offensive linemen.

“(Vi) shows me a lot because he’s on the offensive side of the football,” said Latu. “He teaches me how to keep his leverage down and how to keep your pad level down because that plays a big role for a defensive linemen, especially going against our offensive line. He shows me how to stay low and shoot my hands.

“He teaches me what’s hard for him to block and what moves work on him, so I try to work on it with him back at home. He’s shown me some stuff and I’m learning from an offensive perspective.”

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