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Utes football: Utah's Latu Heimuli happy to be injury-free heading into senior season

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18 2013 3:10 p.m. MDT

Latu Heimuli reaches high trying to knock down a pass during a University of Utah football practice Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Latu Heimuli reaches high trying to knock down a pass during a University of Utah football practice Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Things haven’t quite worked out as expected for Utah defensive tackle Latu Heimuli, who was one of the state’s most recruited players coming out of Highland High School in 2009.

Then Florida coach Urban Meyer wanted Heimuli, as did practically every school in what was then the Pac-10 and other big-time programs. Heimuli’s final four came down to Florida, Cal, Oregon State and Utah before he decided to stay home and play for the Utes.

“I’m a momma’s boy,’’ Heimuli said with a smile.

But people have hardly heard a word about Heimuli since he enrolled at Utah four years ago. You could say he hasn’t lived up to his potential, but there’s a good reason for it.

Injuries.

Latu Heimuli is a football player for the University of Utah. (Tom Smart, University of Utah Athletics) Latu Heimuli is a football player for the University of Utah. (Tom Smart, University of Utah Athletics)

Heimuli has rarely been healthy while at the U., and he came this close to hanging up his cleats last fall after suffering a lower-back injury that ended his 2012 season in October. Besides the back injury, Heimuli has broken his foot three times and had a broken thumb.

“He’s always been injured,’’ said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s not a matter of living up to his potential; it’s a matter of not having a chance to live up to his potential. He was a national recruit coming out of high school, a very talented kid, and it’s been one thing after another that has held him back.’’

Heimuli came to Utah as a defensive lineman, which he played his first two seasons, including a redshirt year. He saw significant action in his first-ever game against Pitt in 2010, getting three tackles and a sack.

Because the Utes had an abundance of defensive tackles, including All-American Star Lotulelei, Heimuli saw less time on the D-line and was moved in 2011 to the offensive side of the ball, where the Utes lacked depth. He played in seven games that season and started two before being sidelined with a foot injury. Last year, he played just four games before the injury bug hit.

But now he’s back to where he began his career, as a defensive tackle. He couldn’t be happier.

“The O-line was a great experience for me, but D-Line is where my heart is,’’ he says. “It feels good to be back. I’m glad the coaches accepted me and also my fellow teammates.’’

Right now Heimuli is listed as a co-starter with fellow senior LT Tuipulotu at one of the tackle spots, alongside another senior, Tenny Palepoi.

New defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki is happy about what he’s seen of Heimuli so far in fall camp.

“We expect him to definitely contribute this year,’’ he said. “For Latu, this is his last hurrah, his senior year, so we’re going to be careful with him. He’s lighter now; his foot feels better; and he’s moving good.’’

Heimuli has dropped from 320 pounds to 290 pounds to give him a little more quickness on the defensive side.

“I’m still taking time to get used to all the tendencies, getting rid of the O-line tendencies, but I’m coming along,’’ he said.

Heimuli has come a long way since last fall when he thought his career might be over.

However, he got cleared by team doctors to work out, which he did diligently for six months.

“The rehab process went well and I was able to get back in shape and now my back feels great,’’ he said.

He’s taken up a new hobby — cycling — to get his cardio back and he tries to put in 10-15 miles per day. Before cycling, one of his favorite hobbies was playing tennis — can you imagine a 300-pounder on the tennis court? — but football has put tennis in the back seat for now.

Although he hasn’t accomplished what he or many others expected when he first came to Utah, Heimuli is just trying to make the best of his final season at the U.

“It’s been pretty disappointing, but everything happens for a reason,’’ he says. “I’m just excited about the upcoming season and looking forward to being out here with my teammates and doing anything I can to contribute to a winning season.’’

Adds Whittingham, “He’s holding up well. He’s had a history of nagging injuries that have kept him off the field, but so far so good. If we can get him to give us quality reps this season, then it’s really a great comeback story.’’

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