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Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei looking for improvement in Year 2

0730PANTHERS_17
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, above, and Kawann Short came to training camp in better shape and with more confidence entering their second season.

SPARTANBURG Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says he believes defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are ready to take the next step as they enter their second season in the NFL.

But Lotulelei doesn’t even know what “next step” entails.

“I don’t know what that means,” Lotulelei said with a laugh. “Me and KK spend a lot of time together. We’ve grown together here. We’re still growing.”

Lotulelei and Short are grouped together because they were drafted in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the 2013 draft and play the same position. It’s Lotulelei who has been the star. Last year he was a midseason candidate for defensive rookie of the year, and he’s at his second training camp with greater confidence.

“Confidence coming from being on the field knowing what’s expected of me,” Lotulelei said, “knowing what to expect from camp, just understanding the scheme of our defense and the techniques, just understanding what I need to get done each and every day.”

In a training camp where sacks can’t be registered against one’s own team, Lotulelei has been a constant force in the interior of Carolina’s vaunted defensive line.

Last year, Lotulelei started every game and totaled three sacks to lead all defensive tackles. He also registered 42 tackles as the Panthers’ run-stopper. He played a major role for the second-best rushing defense in the NFL.

But there are still things to work on for Lotulelei. Pass rushing, his biggest weakness since he entered the league, is still a work in progress.

“It got better toward the end of the year but just continuing to clean up some of the technique stuff, hands and all that,” Lotulelei said.

Rivera said that he’s already seen improvement and that Lotulelei and Short came to camp in better shape and with more confidence.

“There’s no longer that rookie uncertainty,” Rivera said. “Now they’re veterans. Granted, they’re only in their second year. But there is an air of confidence about the way they’re doing things.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for Lotulelei – even though he’s now a veteran – is getting picked on about his hair.

Last year he had a long, mullet-like hairstyle that drew jeers from teammates Steve Smith, Jordan Gross and DeAngelo Williams. Lotulelei shaved his hair before organized team activities and said his teammates were giving him less grief about it, but the jokes have come back in Spartanburg.

Lotulelei is “trying something new this year” with a rat tail. Lotulelei’s brother, Lowell, is an incoming freshman at Utah, and the two decided to grow rat tails together.

“Just me and him being bored in the summer,” Lotulelei said of the origin of the idea. “I went back home and worked out, trained with my little brother. We just had a little bonding idea I guess. We’ll see how it goes.

“If my mom or wife doesn’t like it, then it’s coming off.”

The jokes never stop from his teammates, he said. And Williams gets on him more than any other Panthers player.

“That’s how it goes when you’re one of the young guys,” Lotulelei said. “The older teammates will always have something to say. You come in with the wrong shoes on and they’re going to have something to say.”

Though Lotulelei has warmed to more good-natured ribbing this year, he has no plans to retaliate against Williams.

“I try not to say too much because I don’t want him to go off on me,” Lotulelei said. “That wouldn’t be good.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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