Lotulelei has star potential despite heart scare
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — He has the perfect name, even if it belies his humble, soft-spoken nature.
Now that concerns about his heart function have been alleviated, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is ready to make the jump from former furniture mover to NFL first-round pick.
“I think he will have a long career in the NFL,” said Gil Brandt, NFL.com’s personnel evaluator. “ls he going to have a Pro Bowl type of career? If he becomes a consistent player.”
Brandt rates Lotulelei as the 22nd best player in the draft, which starts Thursday. Some draft prognosticators have the University of Utah standout going as high as No. 4 to the Philadelphia Eagles and new coach Chip Kelly because of his versatility along the line. Florida’s Shariff Floyd is expected to be the first defensive tackle taken.
Kelly, Oregon’s former head coach, certainly is familiar with Lotulelei. As is anyone who watched Utah’s game last fall against Southern California.
In a battle against one of the best centers in the Pac-12, the 6-foot-3, 314-pound Lotulelei exploded off the snap, bulldozed USC’s Khaled Holmes, forced a fumble and recovered for Utah.
It showed the strength of a man who bench-pressed 225 pounds 38 times during his pro workout in March.
A month earlier, however, Lotulelei’s future was clouded when a heart test at the NFL scouting combine suggested his left ventricle was pumping at only 44 percent efficiency.
A battery of tests, including those by a University of Utah cardiologist, subsequently revealed that abnormal heartbeat wasn’t indicative of a permanent condition but may have been the result of a virus.
Still, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the scare was stressful on the married father of two.
“But he handled it well,” Whittingham said. “He’s a very mature guy and doesn’t panic. He’s very stable with his emotions. I’m positive it was a big relief to him when he knew the outcome was a completely clean bill of health.”
Lotulelei said the re-tests went fine and teams have medically cleared him.
“It has been a busy couple months with workouts, training and traveling around to meet with teams,” Lotulelei said in an email interview Sunday. “I was frustrated that I didn’t have the chance to compete at the combine and that process slowed my training a bit. ... There are no concerns, so I’m satisfied.”
As for whether that first report affected his stock, he said, “I have no control over that. I did everything I could on the field and my film is all there and speaks for itself.”
Lotulelei won’t be among the two dozen players attending the NFL draft in person in New York. He declined the invitation so he could be with 50 to 100 family members and friends at his home south of Salt Lake City.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. “I could have told you that a long time ago. He has a hard time even being in the spotlight itself.”
Sitake recalled an incident last year when Lotulelei was interviewed for a feature story.
“They wanted to take a single photo of him and he just wouldn’t do it,” Sitake said. “So we had a picture of him with the whole D Line. That’s just the type of person that he is. He doesn’t like a lot of attention for himself. He’s all about the team. What more could you ask for, a guy who is unselfish, and the way he plays and the way he leads this team? ... To have a guy that’s really grounded like that and humble, it’s awesome.”
Some compare Lotulelei to Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata, selected to four Pro Bowls since being drafted 12th overall in 2006.
Brandt said the knock on Lotulelei, who for a while worked as a furniture mover before rededicating himself to football at Utah and shedding extra weight, is that he doesn’t dominate every play.
“You see him in one game make great plays. You want to see him make more plays like that,” Brandt said. “A guy that is physically strong as he is needs to make more plays.”
Sitake pointed out that Lotulelei probably played 40 snaps a game in college.
“He’s been on the field 90 percent of the snaps,” Sitake said. “I don’t know how many D linemen in the NFL play that many snaps.”
Sitake also said Lotulelei’s best plays in college were the less obvious ones.
“It’s always a play that no one really recognizes him for, taking up the extra blocker to free up his teammates,” Sitake said. “If you look at his numbers, he doesn’t have a lot of sacks. He doesn’t have a lot of tackles. But his imprint on the game is amazing. He’s such a disruptor. He’ll make a mess and have the other guys clean it up. If they’re going off stats alone, he probably wouldn’t be taken so high.”
Whittingham compared Lotulelei to another soft-spoken former Ute, Luther Elliss, drafted No. 20 overall by Detroit in 1995. He went on to play for 10 seasons and in two Pro Bowls.
“He’s built like a brick wall, like a house,” Utes offensive tackle Jeremiah Poutasi said of Lotulelei.
He’s just not moving furniture into them anymore.
“That time in my life helped define me, so I think of it often,” Lotulelei said. “I am very grateful to be in this position to chase my dream of playing at the highest level and being able to take care of my family.”