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Lotulelei's star power could fuel Carolina Panthers

By Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

SPARTANBURG When you write about a quarterback or a receiver, a running back or a cornerback, highlights and lowlights are easy to come by. They’ll do something or they’ll fail to, and everybody will know.

Star Lotulelei, whom the Carolina Panthers selected with the 14th pick in April’s draft, plays defensive tackle. His highlights Monday include: Crashing into the offensive line and usually pushing it backward; dominating tackling dummies; taking up space.

Lotulelei had a good practice.

“He’s been everything we thought he could be and maybe a little bit more,” says Panther coach Ron Rivera. “He’s done some really good things. He’s shown his athleticism, he’s shown his power and strength and he’s a sharp kid.

“His retention coming back from OTAs and mini-camp was very good. We’re very pleased with that. But his work ethic is really phenomenal, so that’s what you need from your young guys, and quite honestly KK (second-round pick Kawann Short, a fellow defensive tackle) has been the same.”

Lotulelei, a compact 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, and Short, 6-3 and 310, often are together at training camp. They hang out, do a joint interview Monday on WFNZ-AM and share a dorm room Lotulelei claims is standard issue and more than big enough.

Short “is a great guy,” says Lotulelei. “We figure we’re going to be together for a little while so we might as well try to like each other.”

Lotulelei wears a long-sleeved black Utah T-shirt before practice Monday. Utah is also the school from which Carolina veterans Steve Smith and Jordan Gross come.

Smith and Gross are true to their school, but not to Lotulelei’s hair.

“As soon as I step into the locker room they both started picking on me a little bit,” says the rookie. “Steve gives me a lot of crap, a lot of stuff, about my hair. He’s always telling me to do something with it. And I think I need to soon before he does something about it.”

Lotulelei’s hair is challenging to describe.

Imagine a kid who asks his mom if he can get a mullet and the mom says no. The kid asks again and the mom says no. The kid asks a third time and the mom says he can’t have a full mullet but he can have a mini-mullet.

Lotulelei’s hair is like that.

When Smith goes after your hair does Gross defend you?

“Oh, no, they’re both just picking on me,” says Lotulelei. “Jordan just pretty much eggs Steve on. If one starts it then the other one eggs the other one on. So it’s great. It’s fun. They’re two great guys, two great examples for me, not only for me just for the young guys.”

If Lotulelei does for the Panthers what his Utah brethren have his employers will be thrilled.

A first-team All-American last season, Lotulelei’s numbers supersede moving offensive linemen and taking up space. He had 42 tackles, including a team-high 11 for losses. He had seven sacks, deflected five passes, recovered five fumbles and forced four fumbles.

When you talk to your friends about the NFL, what do you tell them?

“It’s been tough a little bit,” Lotulelei says. “Just scheme-wise coming from a place where what I had to do was hold blocks and kind of open up plays for linebackers, whereas over here they kind of expect the defensive line to make their own plays.”

What’s surprised you most?

“The speed,” Lotulelei says. “That’s something that really caught me off guard.”

He adds: “Everybody’s just so good up here…I’m on the right side so I’m going against Amini (Silatolu) and Jordan Gross and going against (Ryan) Kalil, who’s arguably one of the best centers in the NFL. They just make everything seem so fast moving and make everything so much more complicated than it was in college.”

To compensate, Lotulelei says, he “had to hit (the) playbook and kind of be more aware mentally and that kind of slowed the game down for me.”

Lotulelei lines up with the first team, Short with the second. Both stay after practice Monday. Defensive end Greg Hardy, whom Lotulelei lines up next to on the right side, demonstrates pass-rushing techniques.

Lotulelei could not have a better instructor. Hardy plans to get 50 sacks this season.

If Lotulelei is as good as Rivera believes, and if Hardy is as good as Hardy believes, everybody will know.

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