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Greg Hardy: Carolina Panthers have a star in rookie Lotulelei

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei sacks New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Sunday at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte.

Star Lotulelei has played only three games at defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers, but teammate Greg Hardy has already decided the rookie needs a name upgrade.

“He’s not a star,” Hardy said. “He’s a superstar. And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he’s going to be unstoppable.”

Lotulelei shies away from such praise – he is as quiet as Hardy is garrulous. But after watching Panther defensive tackles for the team’s 19 seasons, I will tell you this:

Lotulelei could eventually become the best defensive tackle in Panthers history.

No.1 on that list would be Kris Jenkins, and Lotulelei will have to string together a couple of big-time seasons to be as strong as Jenkins was in his prime a decade ago. But Lotulelei has started tremendously well in the middle of the Carolina defense, giving the Panthers a mountainous presence in the interior.

Lotulelei got his first NFL sack Sunday against Eli Manning – one of a record-tying seven sacks that the Panthers put up in a 38-0 decimation of the Giants. More important was the way he consistently pushed the pocket back into Manning’s face, leaving him nowhere to go when the defensive ends crashed in from both sides.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after the game his team had all sorts of trouble winning one-on-one battles against Carolina’s defensive line. Coughlin described it as “miserable – because really even when (Manning) stepped up, there wasn’t a lot of room for him to step up.”

Said Hardy, who had three of the Panthers’ seven sacks: “You don’t even understand how awesome it is to have a middle that can just push the pocket, and the quarterback is just right there once you beat your man.”

Defensive tackles traditionally don’t get much glory. By nature, the position doesn’t lend itself to eye-popping numbers of sacks, tackles or turnovers.

But Lotulelei has nevertheless been charting among the top few defensive rookies in the NFL by people who keep track of such things. He has a chance to win the same AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award that middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won in 2012.

“I don’t focus too much on those types of things,” Lotulelei said.

All right, put it this way. Lotulelei is going to be around for a long time. We may as well all learn how to pronounce his last name (lo-too-leh-lay).

The Panthers were lucky to get him. An All-American at Utah, Lotulelei was widely considered a top-3 overall pick until doctors at the NFL scouting combine diagnosed him with a heart condition.

He was later cleared medically, but the heart scare worried enough teams that Lotulelei lasted until the 14th pick, when Carolina took him.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman then took another defensive tackle in the second round – Kawann Short, who also had a sack Sunday but doesn’t start like Lotulelei does. Gettleman was trying to beef up the team’s quota of “hog mollies,” as he calls all big linemen.

With a wife and two young daughters, Lotulelei, seems more grounded than your average NFL 23-year-old.

“Very sharp kid,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Very serious about what he does. Pays attention. Does the extra things. ... He’s a young guy who’s learning how to be a pro and he’s learning very quickly. That’s the beautiful nature of who he is.”

Despite Sunday’s sack, Lotulelei’s forte is run defense. He has a couple of tackles for loss already this season. And by eating up two blocks on a number of plays, he frees Kuechly in particular to roam the field.

“Star just gets better and better every week,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “He’s very consistent for a young player, which is hard to come by.”

As for Lotulelei himself, he offers a low-key assessment of his start.

“I’ve been happy,” he said, “but I definitely feel like there’s a lot of room to improve. If I can clean a few things up, I’m going to make a lot more plays.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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