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Panthers’ DT Star Lotulelei, a man of few words, makes a big impact

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/14/17/27/10zTSU.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei doesn’t say much, but his play in the middle of the Panthers’ defense has teammates talking about him.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/14/17/47/56bEi.Em.138.jpeg|208
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, right, tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike James (25) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. inOctober.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/14/17/47/1rXnr9.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/14/17/47/xv38Q.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/14/17/47/LKdyy.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers (98) defensive tackle Star Lotulelei runs down the field during a pre-game warmup on Monday, November 18, 2013. The Panthers hosted the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

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At the NFL scouting combine in February, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson approached Utah’s Star Lotulelei, another highly rated defensive tackle, and tried to start a dialogue.

It was mostly one-sided.

“I’m not going to lie, I brought the conversation to him,” Richardson said this week.

Richardson hasn’t stopped talking.

The New York Jets, who visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, drafted Richardson with the 13th overall pick, one spot before Lotulelei went to the Carolina Panthers. But Richardson told ESPNNewYork.com last week he’d probably be the No. 1 overall pick in a re-draft.

Meanwhile, Lotulelei has kept quiet, despite anchoring a defense that has improved from 10th to second in total defense since his arrival.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes the defense’s ascension has been a three-year process. But Rivera said an argument could be made that Lotulelei was the “missing piece” – a 6-foot-2, 315-pound hole-clogger with wide shoulders, a long beard and longer hair.

The only thing undersized about Lotulelei are his conversations.

Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards’ locker has been next to Lotulelei’s all season, but only recently did Edwards get to know a little more about the native of Tonga.

“That’s just his personality. He’s a quiet guy,” Edwards said. “As long as he plays like he’s been playing on Sunday, that’s all right with me.”

Entering Sunday’s game against the Jets, Lotulelei (36 tackles) doesn’t have the stats to match Richardson (66 tackles, 3.5 sacks) or some of the other defensive rookies.

Lotulelei’s two sacks are tied for seventh on the team, and his 10 quarterback pressures are five fewer than the total for rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short, the Panthers’ second-round pick.

But Lotulelei’s presence has helped keep blockers off middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, who is having another strong season.

And while Lotulelei predictably said little about his chances for the rookie award, Richardson believes Lotulelei deserves to be in the discussion.

“Star’s been balling,” Richardson said. “He’s been having a Rookie of the Year campaign, too.”

An atypical NFL rookie

Lotulelei, 23, is not like most NFL rookies. When he leaves Bank of America Stadium after a day of practice, film study and meetings, he heads home to his wife, Fuiva, and their two daughters at the family’s SouthPark apartment.

Lotulelei met Fuiva, who is also Tongan, when the two attended Snow Community College in Utah. Lotulelei tries to help his wife as much as he can during the season, cleaning up, taking the trash out and accompanying her to 4-year-old Arilani’s ballet classes.

Lotulelei’s younger brother, Lowell, is living with them in Charlotte before enrolling at Utah in the spring. He’ll play defensive tackle for the Utes; he will not babysit for his brother in the interim.

“I’m not going to leave my kids with my little brother if I don’t have to,” Lotulelei said, laughing.

Lotulelei’s parents – who moved to the U.S. when he was 8 – were in town for Thanksgiving. Lotulelei invited Short to join them for dinner, which included the traditional Thanksgiving fixings, along with a couple of Tongan dishes.

“I can’t even pronounce what he had. It was like some noodles that they had back where he’s from,” Short said. “It wasn’t bad at all.”

It was one of the few times Short and Lotulelei have eaten together outside of the Panthers’ facility. When the defensive line gets together for Friday night dinners during the season, Lotulelei usually takes a rain check.

Not that Short blames him.

“His wife cooks every day,” Short said. “So you can’t skip a meal and leave and come eat somewhere else with the guys.”

Edwards, 32, in his 10th season, said Lotulelei is more mature than most rookies or young players.

“He’s been put in some adult situations obviously at a young age. I kind of went through the same thing myself,” Edwards said. “He definitely carries himself very well, very mature. Definitely very professional (for) his first year of football.”

A pre-draft alarm

Lotulelei was thought to be a top-5 prospect when he arrived at the NFL draft combine in Indianapolis in February. But an echocardiogram detected an abnormality in Lotulelei’s heart function, forcing him to sit out the workout portion of the combine and setting off alarms in scouting offices around the league.

About a month after the combine, Lotulelei was cleared after tests showed his heart function had returned to normal range.

Panthers team doctor Robert Heyer said earlier this fall that it appears a mild virus contributed to Lotulelei’s abnormal echocardiogram reading at the combine. But Heyer said Lotulelei “is completely normal now.”

The initial scare caused Lotulelei to drop out of the top 10 on the first night of the draft. Lotulelei was still available when the Jets picked at 13, but Jets coach Rex Ryan thought Richardson was a better fit for their 3-4 scheme.

“We have two nose tackles, big-body guys like Star, that we felt really good about (in Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis),” Ryan said. “I was looking for the real athletic, disruptive three-technique. ... We immediately took to Sheldon and he’s been absolutely tremendous for us.”

Panthers first-year general manager Dave Gettleman took Lotulelei, then added another defensive tackle in the second round in Short. The Panthers saw Short as more of a penetrator than the run-stuffing Lotulelei, although Lotulelei believes he’s improving in that area.

“Coming from Utah, where I just had to hold my gap (and) stay at the line, coming over here and trying to transfer to penetrating and getting upfield, I think I’ve done a better job of that.”

A signature moment

Lotulelei’s signature play through his first 13 games came in Week 13 against Tampa Bay on a play in which he didn’t get a sack or make a tackle. Lotulelei used a bull rush to drive Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson 5 yards into the backfield and plant him on his backside.

Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon was able to side-step Lotulelei and avoid the sack. But the quickness and strength Lotulelei demonstrated were not lost on his teammates.

“It was an unbelievable play,” Edwards said. “His power and the force he’s got coming off the ball is amazing.”

Lotulelei has started every game, sharing time in a defensive tackle rotation with Short, Edwards and Colin Cole. That rotation has helped Lotulelei withstand the weekly punishment in the trenches and avoid the so-called rookie wall.

“That’s a man’s game inside. You’re talking a grown man’s game with guys that are 28, 30, 32 years old. That’s some beef in there and some muscle,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “And here’s a young rookie coming in and starting. And to play as consistent as he has all season long, and really no signs of wear yet with the rookie wall, I think his best football’s ahead of him.”

Lotulelei said he tries to find something each week to work on.

“So there’s no way I can hit a rookie wall when I’m trying to improve on something in my game each and every week,” he said.

Panthers players say Lotulelei has a mean streak that belies his mild-mannered persona.

“The one thing the guys say is don’t get him mad because there’s a different side of him,” Rivera said. “He’s like a raging bull.”

Rivera said there are times he’d like to see Lotulelei “reach down deep inside and pull out” that nasty side.

But good luck moving Lotulelei when he gets his feet set. Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert tried last week during a scrum pitting the backs and receivers against the defensive linemen.

“We play-fight a lot around here. And he grabbed me,” Tolbert said. “I consider myself a big, strong guy. I tried to get away and I wasn’t moving. So he’s a stroooong guy.”

Kyle Whittingham, Lotulelei’s coach at Utah, said Lotulelei is “doing exactly what I thought he’d do – and that’s dominate the line of scrimmage.”

Whittingham believes questions about Lotulelei’s ability to penetrate are off base.

“He certainly penetrated when he bull-rushed that Tampa Bay (lineman). Isn’t that the ultimate penetration?” Whittingham said. “The bottom line with Star is physically he’s capable of doing whatever they want him to do.”

A quick impression

Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who also played at Utah, happened to be back on campus last spring when Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington put Lotulelei through a personal workout.

When Smith saw the Panthers had picked Lotulelei in the first round, he sent Gettleman a text.

“I texted Dave Gettleman and said, ‘Great. I’m done looking at the draft. Good night.’ Turned the television off. I was good,” Smith said. “That was a guy I thought could help our team.”

Smith has given Lotulelei a hard time about his shaggy hair and beard, calling him “Brown Santa” and “Polynesian Santa.”

Smith said he means well.

“He’s a good-natured guy so we always joke around with each other. But also I do it to show him I’m paying attention to him,” Smith said. “I’m always watching him, and also encouraging him.”

The Panthers’ two previous first-round picks before Lotulelei – Cam Newton and Kuechly – each won a Rookie of the Year Award. Whether Lotulelei keeps the streak alive or not, Smith paid him the ultimate compliment.

“I think he’ll be a guy that doesn’t get the recognition all the time, but you can tell when he’s not there,” Smith said. “When he’s in the game, you know he’s in the game.”

And undoubtedly, you’ll see Lotulelei before you hear him.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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