Editor’s note: This story is part of a periodic series by The Bee that puts a spotlight on the recruiting process, from the Sacramento area’s elite prospects to those hoping to find their way — and the issues in between.
The two most-heavily recruited football players in the long, storied history of Jesuit High School are teammates, brothers in arms.
But Laiatu Latu and Isaiah Rutherford don’t compare notes or the sparkle of office stationery signed by coaches from the biggest college programs, gushing of the players’ greatness.
The recruiting grind can be overwhelming enough — calls, texts, mail, pressure to make a decision.
Sometimes, these seniors just want to be teenagers. Carefree with a focus on school, football, family, friends — and football.
“We’ve tried to schedule a couple of recruiting trips together, but we’re nonchalant about it,” Rutherford said of the recruiting intensity. “We rarely talk recruiting.”
Mostly, they let their game speak, and it speaks volumes. Latu is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound outside linebacker who had 12 sacks last fall for Jesuit, ranked second by The Bee entering this season. He has also caught touchdowns in traffic and blocked kicks and punts.
Latu’s game translates to the college level because he’s a mixture of size, agility and versatility. He stormed onto the regional scene last fall and thrust himself onto the national recruiting radar. Latu grew into his own, and then often took over games.
At 6-2, 170 pounds, Rutherford is a superb two-way player at running back and defensive back. But colleges covet him to be a lockdown cornerback, to use his speed and instincts to cloak receivers in a fast-forward game.
That he rushed for 1,468 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall was testament to his durability and ability to cut and sprint and take hits.
Latu and Rutherford are deemed four-star recruits by various recruiting sites. But check out the five-star programs hot in pursuit.
On Latu’s short list of suitors, in no particular order: Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington. He plans to major in criminal justice.
For Rutherford, in no order of note: Cal, Colorado, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon. He wants to study business.
Jesuit opens its season on Aug. 24 at top-ranked Folsom, led by its own cast of national recruits, including receivers Elijah Badger and Joe Ngata and kid brother Daniyel, a running back. Quarterback Kaiden Bennett is also being recruited by programs across the country.
Latu and Rutherford do not take the opportunity of a full athletic scholarship for granted. National studies show that fewer than 2 percent of high school athletes in America receiver full rides.
Prospects have to check off on several boxes: body, speed, strength, ability, effort, character, grades and coachability. The early signing period is Dec. 20-22, though prospects can still sign in February.
Latu and Rutherford do not expect to give a verbal commitment any time soon.
“These two are great,” Jesuit coach Marlon Blanton said.
Rutherford’s coverage ability and speed stood out when he attended a football camp at Alabama last summer. He caught the eye of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who offered a scholarship. It was the first offer Rutherford received, and he’s still numb about it.
That he did not list Alabama on his short list of desired landing spots should not come across as a lack of respect, Rutherford said. Like his pal Latu, a college choice will come down to what feels right for the prospect and the family.
It’s common for area athletes to stay on the West Coast, in part because of the prominence of the Pacific-12 Conference, but also proximity to family. In recent years, national recruits from this area stayed closer to home, including Arik Armstead (Oregon), Jake Browning (Washington), Cameron Smith (USC) and Shaq Thompson (Washington).
The recruiting process is often a family effort. It can otherwise be a heavy burden for a 17-year-old.
Said Latu, “I’m super blessed and super honored that these colleges are looking at me, that all of this hard work is paying off. It’s emotional. I’m really thankful. My family is helping me a lot.”
Latu is Tongan. He said he embraces “being a proud Polynesian.” He has three siblings and “a million cousins.”
“Not a lot of people on my dad’s side went to college,” Latu said. “My entire family would be extremely pleased.”
Latu’s parents, Kerry and Sebastian, did not play sports in college. But Rutherford’s father did.
Reynard Rutherford grew up in the Bay Area and rushed for 2,256 yards and 13 touchdowns from 1992-95 at Cal. He bounced around the pro football circuit, including a camp tryout with the 49ers.
“My dad’s helping me a lot,” Rutherford said of his recruitment. “He’s helping me with the real and the BS (of it all). He’s a big mentor for me.”
And he’s a big Cal fan, naturally.
“He’s pushing me toward Cal,” Rutherford said with a laugh, “but letting me be my own man. He’s saying Cal Bears. He’s got stuff hung up all over (at home).”
In other words: Stay tuned.