UCLA's Laiatu Latu named Pac-12 defensive player of the year

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He was told he would never play football again. Now Laiatu Latu is the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

The star edge rusher is the first Bruin to be named the conference’s top defensive player since defensive lineman Brian Price in 2009. Latu led the resurgent UCLA defense with 21½ tackles for loss, which also ranked first in the country, Latu the first Bruin to do so since Anthony Barr in 2012.

The honor announced Tuesday, as voted on by conference coaches, could be just the beginning for Latu. He is also a finalist for the Bednarik Award for the most outstanding defensive player, the Lombardi Award for the top lineman, the Lott IMPACT Award for the best defensive player and the Ted Hendricks award for defensive end of the year.

The senior who transferred from Washington in 2021 after a neck injury was supposed to end his career was the focal point of a UCLA defense that ranked 11th in the country with 299 yards given up per game. The Bruins had the best rushing defense, giving up just 69.6 yards per game, aided by 41 sacks, their most in a season since 2012.

The Bruins, who will finish the season in the L.A. Bowl against Boise State on Dec. 16 at SoFi Stadium, also landed linebacker Darius Muasau and offensive lineman Duke Clemens on the second team. Muasau, in his second season with the Bruins after transferring from Hawaii, led UCLA with 64 tackles and six pass breakups. Clemens, a center, helped the Bruins lead the conference in rushing at 191.1 yards per game.

For USC, safety Calen Bullock made the first team along with freshman Zachariah Branch as a returner. Receiver Brenden Rice was named to the second team.

Bullock was one of the most consistent forces on USC’s struggling defense. The junior from Pasadena had 61 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions, including a 30-yard pick-six against Utah.

In addition to 29 catches for 311 yards, Branch broke out on special teams. The star freshman was the first USC player to return a kick and punt for touchdowns and have at least one touchdown catch since Adoree’ Jackson in 2016.

Rice led the Trojans with 12 touchdowns on 45 catches for 791 yards. He already accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl ahead of the NFL draft as the Trojans prepare to finish their season in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 against Louisville in San Diego.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams was an honorable mention after ranking second in the conference in passing efficiency, throwing for 30 touchdowns and rushing for 11 more. Defensive lineman Bear Alexander, rush end Solomon Byrd, offensive linemen Justin Dedich and Jonah Monheim, running back MarShawn Lloyd, tight end Lake McRee and receiver Tahj Washington also were honorable mentions.

UCLA defensive backs Kenny Churchwell III and Alex Johnson, tight end Moliki Mataveo, linebacker Kain Medrano and defensive linemen Gabriel and Grayson Murphy were honorable mentions.

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