One mock draft has defensive star No. 1 overall; others have him in top 10.
By Lya Wodraska
| The Salt Lake Tribune
The offense was struggling to get a first down, the defense was uncharacteristically playing without any spark and the team’s overall poor effort against Cal was exasperating Utah’s football coaches.
Needing something, anything, to change the tone of their game, Utah’s coaches decided to run a trick play and inserted defensive lineman Star Lotulelei to use him on a fake punt.
The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Lotulelei caught a pass from punter Sean Sellwood and lumbered 17 yards for a first down.
While the play didn’t change the outcome of the game — the Utes lost 34-10 in what coach Kyle Whittingham calls one of his most frustrating losses of his career — Lotulelei’s effort did provide the Utes with one of the best individual highlights of the year.
"Who knows, maybe we’ll put him in the backfield this year," Whittingham said with a devilish giggle.
Once known as an inconsistent, even lazy football player at Bingham High — and his grades were as spotty as his on-field effort — Lotulelei has evolved into one of the Utes’ most mature players on and off the field.
He has also become one of the most promising NFL prospects the school has ever produced.
Lotulelei has been projected as a first-round NFL pick by several media outlets and the No. 1 overall pick in a recent ESPN mock draft. While that projection has left some scouts mocking the draft — they find it hard to believe a defensive tackle would go No. 1 — it does not obscure the consensus that Lotulelei is expected to become a force in the NFL.
"His style is what people want," said one NFL scout, who asked not to be identified because of team rules. "He is naturally strong and it sounds like a cliché, but he has the big body to clog up the middle. It takes two guys to block him. His position is more of a dirty man’s work, but he does it well and is athletic for his size."
The high praise and ratings aren’t bad for a kid who once was so disheartened with the sport he gave it up for a year.
Now, Lotulelei is all in, and still looking to punish folks in the 2012 season.
"I want to take care of business this year," he said. "There are still things I have to improve on in my game, which is why I decided to come back."
Desire regained » Actually, Lotulelei came back to football twice — most recently deciding he’d stay for his senior year at Utah rather than head to the NFL. But he would never have gotten to make that decision if it weren’t for the key moment when he quit football following a year of playing for Snow College.
As a high school senior, Lotulelei rightfully assumed he had the talent to play for a major college and had BYU, Utah and Oregon chasing after him. However, he wrongly assumed his talent would overcome a poor effort in the classroom.
When he didn’t qualify academically, a disheartened Lotulelei enrolled at Snow College, where in 2008 he struggled to find the passion for the game. Ultimately, he decided the sport was no longer for him.
"I was real discouraged and depressed and needed to figure out what I was going to do," Lotulelei said.
He found his answer watching his younger brother Lowell and his cousin, fellow Ute LT Filiaga, play during the 2009 season.
"It made me miss football," he said. "If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be doing what I am today."
Revitalized, he joined the Utes in 2010 and played in all 13 games as he showed a new dedication to football. The guy who had the reputation of a slacker was replaced by one who had not only the physical presence to be a game changer, but also, finally, the desire to be one.
"The knock on him is he’d play hard one play, then take a play off," said Bingham coach Dave Peck. "He was a real talented kid, but he just wasn’t motivated. He was solid for us, but he’d just go away at times. I didn’t know how it would go for him at Utah, but he has become a real mature kid. He always had the talent, but the decision for him to stay in school and get his degree tells me how much he has matured."
Lotulelei acknowledges he didn’t always give 100 percent, but his outlook changed when he rededicated himself to the sport.
"Coming here, coach Whitt instills a lot of pride in us in working hard," he said. "That is something we try to do now, come out and work hard every day."
Breakthrough season » His 2011 season was an eye-opener. Not only did the Utes watch Lotulelei take his play to another level, the Pac-12 also got an eyeful as he dominated the line of scrimmage in Utah’s new conference. His impact was such that not only did Lotulelei win a slew of postseason honors — he’s still being talked about by former Pac-12 players.
Offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, who was drafted by Oakland in the third round of the 2012 draft, said he is asked about Lotulelei almost more than himself when he runs into fellow linemen.
"At the combine and other places, they all want to know about him," Bergstrom said. "They all talk about how tough he was. For us, he set the gold standard in practice. We knew if we could move Star, we could move anyone. He is a freak of an athlete, but he’s a real mature guy, too."
Helping anchor Lotulelei is his wife, Angelina, who was a volleyball player at Snow College.
In an effort to maintain some level of privacy — and perhaps anticipating what is to come — Lotulelei wants to keep wife and his daughters, 3-year-old Arilani and 1-year-old Pesatina, out of the spotlight. However, it is obvious from the way his face lights up when discussing them just how much of an influence his family has been on him.
"They are the reason I work so hard," he said. "It’s hard on them when we are out of town so much in the season, but I want to take care of them."
Based on those draft projections, Lotulelei should do just fine financially. There were some worries at Utah that Lotulelei would turn pro after this past season, chasing the dollars sooner rather than later. However, discussions with Whittingham, other Ute coaches and his friend, former Ute defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, convinced him to stay.
Siliga went against Whittingham’s advice and turned pro following his junior season in 2010. He went undrafted and only recently has found a promising role with the Denver Broncos as a candidate for the starting nose tackle job.
"We talked a lot," Lotulelei said. "He told me to work on my game because it’s not the same at the next level. But more than anything, he thought of Utah as a family here and how much he missed not playing his senior year. What he said made a big impact on me."
Bracing for what’s to come » Now, Lotulelei plans to make a big impact for the Utes in 2012. During the Utes’ first day of summer weight training, Lotulelei was easy to lose among his teammates, many of whom were jumping around, chest bumping and whooping and hollering in between sets.
Lotulelei lifted weights like he plays: He got the work done, then moved on with little fanfare.
"I’ve never been a guy who wants much attention," he said. "The spotlight is great, but I am just here to play football. I’ve got a lot of things to focus and work on."
Keeping that focus where it should be is one of the reasons he hopes to maintain some semblance of privacy even as the hype around him grows.
A humble guy verging on shy, it will probably be easier for Lotulelei to handle opponents on the field than all the attention that will soon come his way. A wild time for him is hanging at home with his kids, playing video games.
As for his game, Lotulelei admits he knows he is taking a risk of a possible career-ending injury, but he decided playing his final year, plus earning his degree in sociology, was worth the danger of suffering a potential injury.
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said as good as Lotulelei is, he does indeed have areas in which to improve. Lotulelei may have won the 2011 Morris Trophy — which goes to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 as voted by the league’s offensive linemen — but he didn’t make enough big plays, Sitake said.
Lotulelei had 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks, not to mention that 17-yard pass play. But he needs to do even more, Sitake said.
"Part of my job is to make sure we are never satisfied," Sitake said. "We can’t complain about last year, but we hope he can step it up even more this year. He had a huge impact last year because he had a lot of guys blocking him, but he didn’t make that many actual plays. That is where we want him to step it up, get some more sacks and more tackles."
Scouts also want to see more. Even though he’s a strong candidate to be a first-round pick, Lotulelei can help himself by improving his pass rush, said one scout.
"He has a lot of natural ability and a big physical presence, but if he can be more of a pass rusher and run stopper, his stock will only go up from there," the scout said. "I always think guys should stay in school, and he can benefit from another year to keep improving."
Such critical views might miff some players who have bought into the hype surrounding them, but not Lotulelei.
He understands why he is being pushed. He has his own motivations, too.
A guy who once didn’t care about his grades is intent to leave Utah not only as a high draft pick, but also as one with a degree. His father recently earned a doctorate in accounting from BYU and now Lotulelei wants his degree to set a standard for his kids too, on and off the field.
"I want to be an example for my kids as they grow up," he said.