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Carolina Panthers’ top pick Star Lotulei: Team first, glory 2nd

By Jonathan Jones
jjones@charlotteobserver.com

As a standout defensive tackle at Utah, Star Lotulelei frequently took up two offensive linemen on snaps.

Occasionally he’d even take up three.

So when the Panthers’ first-round selection was asked if he could be as effective at the NFL level as he was as an All-American, his response made Carolina coach Ron Rivera, standing to Lotulelei’s right, crack a smile.

“I hope so. If that’s what the defense needs from me, that’s what I’ll do,” Lotulelei said. “So, if they need me to eat up five blockers then that’s what I’ll do.”

Lotulelei was the second defensive tackle taken in the draft Thursday night and will immediately fill the vacant starting role at nose tackle. That team-first mentality shown at his introductory press conference Friday reflects in his statistics.

A solid run stuffer, Lotulelei didn’t have the number of tackles or sacks of a typical high pick. In his two seasons as a Ute, he had 86 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

But with an already formidable defensive line, the Panthers won’t need him to put up big numbers. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy tallied 23.5 sacks last season while defensive tackle Dwan Edwards racked up a career-high six sacks from the inside.

The hole at nose tackle was left after Carolina cut veteran 325-pound tackle Ron Edwards in the offseason. Ron Edwards had just one sack last season but often times took up multiple blockers just like Lotulelei, who played at 310 last season, did in college.

“We saw what it meant last year getting Dwan Edwards getting an inside push as well, and now you can imagine we’ll have a couple of guys giving us the same inside push,” Rivera said Thursday night. “Now the quarterbacks won’t be able to step up. They’ll be sitting back there as far as we’re concerned and giving our ends an opportunity to make plays.”

Last season the Panthers slid Hardy inside on third-down packages to use his long arms to get a better pass rush. Both Rivera and Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman noted Lotulelei’s addition as an opportunity to use even more combinations on the defensive line.

Where Lotulelei can improve is his pass-rushing ability. His explosiveness allows him to get a jump on most blockers, but if his quickness is contained, he rarely showed the technique to get in the backfield.

Another knock on the 23-year-old run stuffer was that he took plays off. Some chalked up that criticism to a heart condition, which was evaluated this spring by league doctors who cleared him fully.

Last year Lotulelei played 91.2 percent of his snaps for Utah, a high percentage for anyone on the field but especially at that position. But he said he gave 100 percent on every play at Utah, and he plans to do the same at Carolina.

“I don’t think I took plays off at all,” he said. “I had some games I played maybe 80 snaps in the game. I give everything that I have every play. Sometimes it may come off as taking a play off but I don’t feel that way.

“It’s definitely something I think I can improve on to continually get that motor going. I think that’ll help me a lot at this level.”

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