The NFL Draft Combine didn’t turn out how Star Lotulelei hoped.
A top nose tackle prospect from Utah who is projected as a top-10 pick, Lotulelei was discovered to have a heart condition that prevented him from showing NFL teams what he could do athletically.
Doctors said he could still exercise and train, but decided to cautiously hold him out of the combine drills.
Despite not performing in Indianapolis, Lotulelei has plenty of tape showing clubs that he’s the real deal. While Lotulelei declined to be interviewed for this story, his former coaches paint a picture of a humble and hardworking athlete who earns his namesake.
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said in a phone interview that the 6'2", 311-pound All-American is a hard worker who has size, power and speed. Sitake’s team plays both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes, so the Tonga native is a versatile commodity.
“If you watch the USC game, he wanted to match up with C Khaled Holmes and focus on him one-on-one,” Sitake said. “There are times when you feel like you are comfortable with Star lining up at zero (technique, lined up directly over the center) and you put him there. There is tons of film of him playing at zero up the nose and there’s a lot of film of him playing at the DE position.
“Will he make a lot of plays at end? Probably not. His job was to collapse the pocket and take blocks to help the other guys get open.”
During the USC game this past season, Lotulelei exploded up the middle, directly forcing Holmes to give QB Matt Barkley a sloppy exchange. Barkley fumbled the ball and Lotulelei quickly dove on it for a successful recovery.
“That’s when he was playing in the zero, up off center,” Sitake said. “It’s hard for a center who’s going to block a guy so explosive to snap the ball and block at the same time. He’s just so quick off the ball that when it’s snapped, he just pounced on the center, messing up the quarterback exchange.”
In 2012, Lotulelei gained All-American and All-Pac-12 honors, compiling 42 tackles (10 for loss), five sacks and three forced fumbles.
Lotulelei wasn’t always on top of the football totem pole, however. Bad grades prevented him from playing for Brigham Young after he graduated from Bingham High (Utah).
His high school coach, Dave Peck, said in a phone interview that Lotulelei had an extremely high level of talent that was raw because he had just one year of organized football under his belt. Peck said the 23-year-old’s prep talent level reminded him of former Bingham star and NFL WR Kevin Curtis.
“I had to pull him aside more than once,” said Peck, who still keeps in contact with Lotulelei. “I took him aside once during his senior year before the playoffs and let him have it. I told him if he is tardy or misses one more class, he won’t be playing for us. I didn’t have a problem after that timeframe. It was frustrating because I knew he could be getting better grades than he was getting.”
Working at a furniture store after high school helped Lotulelei gain muscle (he was 240 pounds after high school and built significant muscle from constant heavy lifting) and learn the importance of an education.
Star excelled while playing for Snow Community College (Utah) in 2008. He sat out the ‘09 season, but did well enough academically to transfer to Utah.
Following his former student’s collegiate career, Peck said Lotulelei’s biggest improvement has been his work ethic, as his improved grades have helped the Morris Trophy winner (awarded to the top defensive lineman in the Pac-12) focus more on the gridiron.
“When that changed in the classroom, I think you saw a difference in how he played on the football field, too,” Peck stated, noting Lotulelei skipped entering last year’s draft to finish his sociology degree. “He’s always been a good football player. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s done great things in college. What I’m really happy with and proud of is what he’s done academically.”
Star’s athletic prowess began garnering him NFL recognition as a senior.
"I like Star Lotulelei,” said an NFL scout on the condition of anonymity. “He lost a lot of weight this year (he played around 360 pounds in 2011) and he is moving around better than he did last year. He is still raw and untapped and has a lot of upside. There is a lot to like."
While teams will be questioning Lotulelei’s health, Sitake noted he played “95 percent” of the snaps and always “at a high level.” He would be consistently double and even triple-teamed, but that helped his teammates make plays.
Teams should keep that in mind when evaluating a potential monster who consistently blows up the pocket.
Bob Bajek is the sports editor for the Rantoul Press (IL) and freelances for Pro Football Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter at @bobbajek.