Such is Star Lotulelei’s unassuming personality and his place in the Carolina Panthers’ pecking order at defensive tackle that Lotulelei manages to get overshadowed by Kawann Short even when Short’s not around.
That was the case this week when Lotulelei and rookie Vernon Butler – a pair of first-round picks – took the majority of the reps during organized team activities while Short skipped the voluntary practices in the midst of a contract dispute.
Short’s holdout dominated the early portion of coach Ron Rivera’s post-practice media session Tuesday, the only day reporters were allowed to watch OTAs this week. Meanwhile, Lotulelei walked off the practice field with little fanfare until a couple of reporters approached and one of them asked about Short.
Not that it fazes Lotulelei, who was drafted one round ahead of Short in 2013 and outplayed him their rookie seasons.
But since then their careers have been on different trajectories, with Short developing into one of the best interior pass-rushers in the league while Lotulelei’s production has fallen off because of injuries and scheme responsibilities.
Never was the discrepancy greater than last year’s Super Bowl season when Short shattered a record for sacks by a Panthers defensive tackle with 11 and earned his first Pro Bowl berth. Meanwhile, Lotulelei battled back from a foot injury to finish strong down the stretch, although no one seemed to notice.
“It was fine. KK earned everything that he got last year,” Lotulelei said, referring to Short by his nickname. “He had a great season and I’m happy for him. But at the same time I’m excited to have a full year under myself again.”
Lotulelei hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since 2013, when he started 16 games, posted 34 tackles and three sacks and was named to an all-rookie team voted on by sports writers who cover the league.
Lotulelei missed two regular-season games in 2014 when he injured his ankle in a November game at Philadelphia. He was back in time for the playoffs, but broke his foot during practice for a divisional-round game at Seattle.
Lotulelei then sat out the first two games last season when he sustained a stress reaction in his surgically repaired foot during training camp in Spartanburg.
Nearly a year removed from the stress reaction, Lotulelei says he feels the best he has since he was a 23-year-old rookie.
“I finally feel like I can get a whole year under my belt again,” Lotulelei said this week. “It’s been since my rookie year since I’ve had a full year, counting offseason and regular season. It’s going to be great.”
While Lotulelei dealt with injuries, Short emerged as a star last season. But it’s worth pointing out that as the nose tackle in the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme, Lotulelei is asked to occupy more blockers while Short has greater pass-rush flexibility playing what’s known as the “3-technique.”
Rivera said Lotulelei often plays a thankless role that creates room for other defenders to operate.
“When you’ve got space-eaters, guys that take up two blocks, it allows other guys to make plays. It allows KK to make plays. It allows the other D-linemen to make plays,” Rivera said. “I’m very pleased with what we’ve gotten out of Star, and I really do think he’s playing the way we hoped he would.”
Lotulelei has seen his sack total drop by one each season, to a career-low 1 in 2015. He understands he might never put up eye-popping stats, but he still thinks he can make a bigger impact.
“Guys that typically play my position, they don’t have great numbers. But they do the things that don’t show up in the stat book,” Lotulelei said. “I accept the role and ... hopefully this year I’ll be a little bit more productive than I was last year.”
Even if Lotulelei were to enjoy a breakout season, he wants no part of the fame that might accompany it. He maintains a quiet life in south Charlotte with his wife and three young children.
“I don’t look at myself like a famous person. I’m not Luke (Kuechly). I’m not Cam (Newton). I’m not TD (Thomas Davis),” Lotulelei said. “I can go places. I can take my family to the movies. I can go to the Y and have a little workout with my wife. It’s nice. I like it. I like it a lot because I’m a private person.”
Lotulelei, a 6-foot-2, 320-pound Tongan with a beard, was able to slip into a busy Charlotte YMCA over Memorial Day weekend without being noticed by most of the workout warriors. He’s content spending most nights at home with his family, where his children are encouraged to speak Tongan, especially when their grandparents are visiting.
“I like to keep that instilled in them,” Lotulelei said. “It’s more when my parents come over or my wife’s parents come over, they speak to them in Tongan and make sure they have an understanding of what it is.”
Likewise, Lotulelei said he’s enjoyed having veteran defensive tackle Paul Soliai in the locker room. Soliai, who signed with the Panthers in March, was six years ahead of Lotulelei at Utah and is of Samoan descent.
“It’s good to have someone here that kind of understands where you’re from and what you’re about,” Lotulelei said.
While the Panthers will try to get an extension done with Short, they’ve already taken care of Lotulelei – at least in the short term. The team exercised its club option (for about $6 million) on Lotulelei for the 2017 season, something it couldn’t do with Short because it applies only to first-round picks under the current labor deal.
Lotulelei says the Panthers have not approached him about a long-term extension. But he made it clear – in his own quiet way – that he wants to stay.
“It’s a great organization and a great team. I’ve grown to love this place,” Lotulelei said before dipping into the locker room. “I’m going to play as hard as I can, work as hard as I can and we’ll see what happens.”