There were two things that never flew through the mind of Arizona State senior linebacker A.J. Latu at the season’s start: leading the Sun Devils in sacks, and most imminently, having to stop Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate.
Even weeks into the season, the senior had never heard of Tate. In the summer, he couldn’t imagine himself at the top of the Sun Devils’ stat boards, but he set one thing straight.
“I want to go out with a bang,” Latu said.
At 6-2, 248 pounds Latu is hard to miss, especially on the field. Sporting the ultimate linebacker look, the Tonganese-American lets his dark, puffy hair flow out of his helmet.
It’s his fifth, but undoubtedly best season at Arizona State. Latu is locked with junior defensive lineman JoJo Wicker for the most sacks on the Sun Devils with six. It’s also the eighth-most in the Pac-12.
Latu took a medical redshirt in 2013, then played bits and pieces of the next three seasons. Finally as starter, he’s proved huge for the Sun Devils, but one thing is missing, his brother Viliami.
“Man, he’s like the other side of my brain,” Latu said. “He knows what I’m supposed to do. He knows what I’m thinking out there. I know what he’s thinking out there.”
Since he was a 7-year-old in Rancho Cucamonga, California, A.J. Latu hadn’t played a season without his brother, Viliami or Ami for short. Ami Latu combined for 55 tackles and seven sacks in three seasons with Arizona State. He graduated in 2016, but returned as coach, helping the defensive linemen, linebackers and specifically his brother.
“We always talked about every time we’d go home after practice what we needed to improve on. What we needed to work on,” Ami Latu said. “When I was gone during that time he kept calling me and I was like ‘why you keep calling me?’... ‘I don’t know it’s just different with you gone. I can’t talk about this with anybody else.’”
But that was before the season. Now, A.J. Latu has settled in. His brother is there to guide him.
“Every time after a series, I’d come to the sideline and he’s like ‘I know you were supposed to do this’ and then corrects me with my mistakes. He’s like my other half,” A.J. Latu said. “When he left, he just said it’s your time. It’s your time to make something happen.”
On Saturday, he needs to answer the task few have ever done: stopping Tate.
The Oregon Ducks held him to just 32 yards rushing in a 48-28 win on Saturday. However, he’s been dominant all season.
In just seven games as a starter, Tate has amassed 1,325 rushing yards, averages 10.2 yards per carry and set an FBS record for the most single-game rushing yards for a quarterback when he earned 327 against Colorado.
A.J. Latu mapped out a plan.
“He’s very smart. He’s smart with the ball. He’s fast and he can create plays even though the play is done. He can create something. Make something happen,” A.J. Latu said. “We just want to box him in. Don’t be too physical. Like get up the field on him before he creates creases and fits through them.”
The Sun Devils haven’t faced a run-first quarterback all season. With Tate being the first, ASU may need to implement defensive changes. Latu, playing a mix of linebacker and defensive end, may be the perfect formula to stop him.
“Sharp young man,” linebackers coach Shawn Slocum said. “He gets football. He’s instinctive, so making those transitions from position to position is not real difficult.”
In Oregon’s defense, stopping Tate was internal. Following their 20-point defeat, players and coaches in Eugene thanked their scout team quarterback Demetri Burch.
To replicate Tate’s style of play, the Ducks’ defense lined up against Burch as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Stopping the 6-0, 193-pound freshman in practice was the Ducks’ key to halting Tate.
For the Sun Devils, they’ve gotten a solid look at 6-3, 213-pound dual threat quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole. Tate, standing at 6-2, 215 pounds, isn’t far from Sterling-Cole.
“Dillon, he’s doing really good. He’s actually been great the past couple of weeks. He’s been helping us a lot with his speed,” A.J. Latu said. “He’s also a very athletic player like Khalil Tate and can fit through creases.”
For A.J. Latu, it’s his first and last game against the Wildcats. He wasn’t healthy to play in years past.
“Just being able to be healthy and just get out there and start doing what I can do at 100 percent made it a lot easier for me and it’s been fun so far. I’m just enjoying my time here. I know it’s coming toward the end of the season and just giving it my all in every game.”