Panthers DT Star Lotulelei explains why he's so eager for preseason to begin
It takes a lot to make Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei lose his composure.
Lotulelei says his last unsportsmanlike conduct penalty came in college and the only time he raises his voice is occasionally at home when one of his four children misbehaves.
“I’m a pretty chill, relaxed guy pretty much all the time,” he said. “You’d have to get me pretty riled up to get me to lose my cool.”
Lotulelei has been one of the Panthers’ most soft-spoken, understated players since he was taken in the first round in 2013 as former general manager Dave Gettleman’s first draft pick.
Predictably, Lotulelei had little to say Sunday on the topic of his contract – or the monster deal that defensive tackle Kawann Short received during the offseason. Short, a second-round pick in the same 2013 draft in which Lotulelei was selected, signed a five-year, $80.5 million deal, with $35 million guaranteed, in April.
Lotulelei will make $6.76 million in the final year of his rookie deal after the Panthers exercised their club option.
“It is part of what we do, it’s part of the business side of things. But I’m not really thinking about it too much,” Lotulelei said. “It’s so early in the season. Right now I’m just trying to focus on getting better, improving and trying to help this defense and this team.”
Lotulelei has been a team-oriented guy from the moment he arrived from Utah after he was drafted 14th overall in 2013.
But it’s Short who’s been the star, with more big plays and a bigger payday than the first-round pick whose given name is Starlite Lotulelei.
“He fills up the stat sheets. He makes a lot of great plays,” Lotulelei said of Short, “Me, (I’m) just trying to play my role on this defense, just try to help us be the best we can be.”
As the nose tackle lined up in the guard-center gap, Lotulelei’s role often consists of taking on double-team blocks, while Short usually is aligned on the outside shoulder of a guard and typically has more space to move.
By occupying two blockers at times, Lotulelei’s most important role might be keeping Luke Kuechly clean and allowing the Pro Bowl middle linebacker to make tackles.
“The biggest thing more so than anything else is (Lotulelei) allows the linebackers to run. It's important,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You have to have space-eaters, guys that are going to absorb and take up blockers. That's what he does. He does it about as well as anybody.”
But Lotulelei has filled the stat sheet at various times during his career, as well.
Of Lotulelei’s 10 career sacks, three of them came against Carson Palmer last October in a 30-20 win against Arizona.
But even during the best game of his career, Star was overshadowed a bit. When Lotulelei sacked Palmer on the Cardinals’ opening drive, it was linebacker Thomas Davis who scooped up the ensuing fumble and returned it 46 yards for his first career touchdown.
Not that Lotulelei was bothered in the least.
“If they want me to go out there and rush the passer, collapse the pocket, stop the run – whatever they need, that’s what I’ll do,” he said Sunday.
Lotulelei played all 16 games last season despite dealing with shoulder pain for much of the year. He had surgery in January to remove loose ligaments, and says he feels much healthier than he did in 2016.
When Gettleman drafted defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round last year and picked up Lotulelei’s fifth-year option rather than sign him to a long-term deal, some observers wondered if Lotulelei fit into the Panthers’ future plans.
Lotulelei, 27, said his preference is to stay in Carolina but knows the decision ultimately is out of his hands.
“I love it here. I’ve made some friends here. The locker room’s great. I love playing with this defense. The D-line room is great. Coaches are great. You’d love to come back,” he said. “But it’s a business and whatever happens is what’s going to happen.”
Lotulelei says he’s capable of more performances like his three-sack game against the Cardinals, adding that he wasn’t taught a lot of pass-rush moves at Utah.
He credited the veterans in the defensive line meeting rooms – along with position coaches Eric Washington and Sam Mills III – with helping him improve in that area.
It would be understandable if Lotulelei – the low-key space eater and absorber of double-team blocks – to be resentful of the sacks and money that have come Short’s way. (Short’s 11 sacks in 2015 were one more than Lotulelei’s career total.)
But that’s not how the native Tongan is wired.
Lotulelei on Sunday dismissed the notion that his dirty work helped Short cash in.
“It’s the whole line. It’s never just one or two guys,” he said. “I think our defense as a whole has helped everybody.”
That said, Lotulelei sounds like he’s ready to help himself in his contract year.
“The money’s a big part of what we do,” Lotulelei said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to go out there and earn it.”