Shalom Luani is the latest in what has become a pretty long line of successful Washington State players from American Samoa, but he’s likely to be the first of this latest string to be selected in the NFL Draft.
As a junior college transfer, Luani had about as successful a two-year run as one could hope for — he started nearly every game and was the most important cog on a defense whose improvement was the key to WSU improving from three wins in 2014 to 17 wins over the past two seasons.
In that span, he recorded 158 tackles (11.5 for a loss), eight interceptions (plus 12 pass break ups) and three forced fumbles. He was all-Pac-12 first team as a senior. And this was after coming to football so late that he was still best known for his soccer exploits when he came to WSU as a four-star recruit.
And now he's on the verge of potentially getting drafted into the NFL. Here's a scouting report.
What We Like
Hard hitter: Luani lays the wood in a way that is unexpected for someone who is 5-foot-11 and 202 pounds. He’s often compared by fans to another big hitting safety produced by WSU, current Arizona Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon. However, Bucannon was 6-1, 211 coming out of Pullman.
“I felt like he jumped off the screen,” WSU coach Mike Leach said about his recruiting video. “He was a hard hitter. He hits hard to the point where I expected him to be bigger in person when I met him. He’s got incredibly quick feet.”
Fast twitch: One of the most special things about Luani is his sudden burst when it’s time to make a play. It’s one of the reasons why he was so successful in his move to WSU’s “nickelback” role — which is more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position that plays close to the line of scrimmage — this season. To borrow a phrase, he often appears to be “shot out of a cannon” as he puts his foot in the ground and starts to pursue a ball carrier, particularly in close distances, where he closes incredibly quickly — something that is evidenced by his 60-yard shuttle time at the NFL Combine, which was tops among safeties.
Great anticipation: Luani’s ability to anticipate and break on a pass is what led to all those interceptions; he’s especially good at that when playing zone underneath.
Disruptive: Put it all together, and you’ve got a guy who was one of the most disruptive players in the Pac-12. By the end of the year, it appeared coaches were specifically game planning to stay away from Luani to minimize his impact.
What We’re Unsure Of
Can he be a classic NFL safety? He was a good deep safety for WSU, playing there for the first 14 games of his career. But as we mentioned, it turned out he was even better when he was near the line of scrimmage, both because of the factors mentioned above and because it minimized his downsides, particularly Luani’s occasional susceptibility in coverage. He wasn’t bad, per se, but it wasn’t his strong suit. At his size, he’s unlikely to be able to play that hybrid LB/DB role as he did in college, and as guys like Bucannon and Shaq Thompson do in the NFL. But his speed is just “OK” — 4.55 40-yard dash at the combine, suggesting a strong safety profile in the NFL.
Tackling: Luani would sometimes miss tackles when coming from long distances, opting for the hard hit instead of wrapping up for the sure takedown. NFL teams surely will not abide its safeties being unable to bring down ball carriers; the question is whether it’s correctable. Luani has only been playing high-level football for a couple of years, and perhaps it’s simply a matter of technique — his 32-inch arm length suggests he’s got the physical tools to be just fine.
Luani is considered to be a late-round pick, and like so many prospects who don’t have overwhelming athleticism, his new team is going to need to have a vision for what he can do on the field. Someone is likely to be intrigued by his ability in small spaces when he’s allowed to attack. He’s also got undeniable production in one of the top conferences in the country — all those stops amounted to roughly 10 percent of all of WSU’s tackles over the past couple of years.
He’s got the endorsement of Bucannon, who said this back in October: “I kinda see him as a more natural safety, but he can play anywhere. He’s a great player, and whenever he gets the opportunity to get to the next level, he’ll be able to do anything he wants.”
And for a guy who came to the mainland with nothing but $400 bucks in his pocket and no real plan for staying other than to figure out a way to play football after going unrecruited out of high school, a shot is all he can ask for.
Highlights were surprisingly tough to find; here’s a reel from his junior year.
And a pro day interview: