How Alabama's Cameron Latu experiment could pay off this spring
Aaron Whitehead can’t stop smiling. The head football coach at Olympus High School in Salt Lake City isn’t the most avid follower of Alabama, but he’ll certainly be keeping a closer eye on the Crimson Tide this spring.
Like many, Whitehead was a bit surprised to learn his former star player, Cameron Latu, lined up at tight end for Alabama during its first spring practice last week. Unlike most, the head coach knows how big of an impact Latu can make at the position.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Whitehead said. “This is going to be fun. I need to make the flight down to Tuscaloosa to catch a game now. I can’t wait.”
Latu came to Alabama as No. 113 player and No. 5 weakside defensive end in the 2018 class. The 6-foot-5, 246-pound redshirt freshman played in just two games last season but is thought to be one of Alabama’s most promising prospects at outside linebacker.
The decision to switch Latu to tight end was described as experimental by Alabama head coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide currently has plenty of depth at the outside linebacker position. Starter Anfernee Jennings returns for his redshirt senior season while Terrell Lewis and Christopher Allen look to bounce back from ACL injuries. Five-star sophomore Eyabi Anoma decided against transferring this offseason, presumedly because he was convinced he, too, would see more action in his second season.
On the other hand, Alabama has a dearth of options at tight end where it loses starters Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges while junior Kedrick James will be suspended for the first four games of the season.
“We do a lot of experimenting in spring to see if there is a guy at a position that might have a better opportunity to contribute at another position,” Saban said last week. “Obviously losing Hale and Irv, we've got some experience issues at tight end and also some depth issues. Having another guy suspended for four games next year at that position, I mean, you're taking three out of the first four guys, so we need to get some people there. We've been encouraged by the progress that (Latu's) made at that position.”
Whitehead believes that encouragement will only grow the more reps Latu gets at his new position.
“He has great hands,” Whitehead said. “We would do the seven-on-seven tournaments during the summers we had him up on varsity. We’d try to work our offense and go through the progression with the quarterbacks, but any time there was any type of dilemma my quarterback would just set his feet and throw right to Cam. It didn’t matter if he was covered or not, Cam would make it look so effortless.”
According to Whitehead, Latu was clocked in the 4.6-range in the 40-yard dash during high school. While he recorded just 10 receptions for 168 yards and touchdown during his senior season, the big-bodied athlete would catch opposing defenses off guard with his deceptive speed.
If Saban is looking for any suggestions, Whitehead still remembers one of his favorite plays from Latu’s senior season when the four-star athlete busted rival West High School for a 72-yard touchdown.
“We go out there in an I-formation with Cam lined up as a tackle, and we shifted so he was a tackle eligible,” Whitehead said. “The first play of the game, he just runs bare naked down the middle of the field. It’s just the funniest thing if you look at it on tape. We were actually all holding our breath because someone that open never catches the ball. But Cam caught it effortlessly, and the breakaway speed he had after catch just set the tone for the game.”
Whitehead even deployed Latu on kick returns later in the season. The move paid off as he returned a kick 75 yards for a touchdown during a game against Murray High School.
“It was like watching a slingshot with a very large rock go flying through the air,” Whitehead said. “They tried to pooch kick it, and he just came running up and scooped it. After that, he just went.”
While Alabama has an opening at kick returner with the departure of Josh Jacobs, tight end is the only new role Latu will be taking on this spring. Chances are the outside linebacker won’t end up switching positions at all. After all, DeVonta Smith spent time at cornerback last spring before ultimately rejoining the receivers in the fall once Alabama restocked its secondary.
Still, those who know Latu’s potential on the offensive side of the ball can't help but daydream about the possibilities.
“I can’t wait to see one of these outside linebackers try to cover him man-to-man,” Whitehead said. “That’d be pretty fun to watch.”