Raiders safety Shalom Luani was a two-sport star growing up. Here is how being a former American Samoa national team player makes him better at safety.
Oakland Raiders’ seventh-round rookie safety Shalom Luani had an excellent first game for the Silver and Black against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night in the preseason. Luani registered six tackles, five solo, defended one pass and recovered a fumble. The former Washington State Cougars’ defensive back played with his head on a swivel in his impressive first game.
Luani’s path to the NFL is a different one to say the least. He grew up as a two-sport star in American Samoa, playing football and soccer. While he is known in Raider Nation as that promising ball-hawking safety out of Wazzu, back home Luani is an association football legend. Luani scored a goal in American Samoa’s first sanctioned FIFA win against Tonga back in 2011.
That was back in 2011, well before Luani had to make a choice about what sport to pick going forward. He picked football in 2012, choosing to play at Chabot College of California that summer. Luani would go to City College of San Francisco in 2013. By 2014, Luani was garnering big-time offers as a JUCO transfer.
Luani ended up signing with Mike Leach‘s Washington State program to play defensive back for the Cougars in the Pac-12. Washington State might be the smallest of the Pac-12 schools, but has had football success in the last 25 years. Overall, it was a good pick for Luani. His time with the Cougars helped him get drafted in the seventh round by Oakland.
While he may not have the football experience as some of this Raiders teammates, Luani makes up for it with some strong instinctive traits he picked up from playing soccer. At six-feet tall, Luani is a tad bigger than most soccer players. Many tend to be smaller of build and closer to the turf. Being taller than most men he’d face on the pitch, the ability to go up for a header is a translatable skill for disrupting the passing game in football.
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Though tackling may not be his strong suit at safety, that’s really all about repetitions and technique. By having three former NFL middle linebackers teaching him the ropes in Oakland in Jack Del Rio, Reggie McKenzie and Ken Norton Jr., we’d have to expect that to get better from Luani going forward.
What really gives Luani a leg up on the gridiron from his soccer background is two-fold: One, he understands on-field spacing, making him a menace in playing underneath zone. Two, he is about the ball. Luani’s ability to play in zone coverage and make explosive plays on the ball have set him apart in his quest to make it to the NFL.
He will obviously have to be coached up. However, his experience of going against the Washington State Air Raid under Mike Leach and the aerial assault led by Derek Carr in Oakland have fast tracked Luani to being a potentially good defensive back. In short, there isn’t a route tree he hasn’t seen in college or pro.
The key here is to put Luani in advantageous situations to make plays. Having him play deep in coverage does not accentuate his skill set. At a shade over 200 pounds, he may be too slight to play in the box consistently as a linebacker/safety hybrid.
He’ll have to get better at tackling to see his role expanded in nickel or dime packages, as well as on special teams. However, it’s too difficult to overlook the strong first game he had. Luani’s ability to get in the middle of the action, much like a strong soccer player, is paving the way for him to have NFL success.