Star Lotulelei isn’t sure why the Spartanburg High football players who attended practice Thursday didn’t seek him out like some of his other Panthers teammates.
They rushed toward defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Kony Ealy, but not many ran to Lotulelei looking for an autograph.
It’s possible that his thick black beard was a little imposing for the high school players. Or maybe it was his hair that’s now in a pony tail.
“Maybe that and how quiet I am,” Lotulelei said. “I don’t seem too approachable.”
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Of Carolina’s starting defensive linemen, Lotulelei is the quietest, and he likes it that way. Last season he didn’t dab in team photos. And when Snoop Dogg crashed a media day during Super Bowl week, Lotulelei was the only player who kept his seat as the rapper made his rounds.
This camp and preseason, Lotulelei has been overshadowed by Short, who is coming off a Pro Bowl-nominated season with 11 sacks and is primed to get a contract extension before this season or next.
Lotulelei is coming off a season when he had career lows in tackles (25) and sacks (one). But he doesn’t feel undervalued by the team.
“It’s underappreciated by those who don’t really understand,” Lotulelei said. “But my teammates get it. My coaches get it. It’s all good to me.”
At 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, Lotulelei mostly plays nose tackle . His primary job is to clog the middle on rushing plays and to take on two blockers on passing plays.
That means he doesn’t get the freedom to run around after the quarterback. It’s his job to free his other three linemen to get those sacks.
That’s also going to be the duty of fellow Polynesian and defensive tackle Paul Soliai. Soliai, who signed a two-year contract in the offseason, is 30 pounds heavier than Lotulelei and will help the rotation of the interior defensive line.
“No matter what, he’s going to collapse the pocket,” Lotulelei said. “There are not a lot of guys who can stop him from collapsing the pocket. He’s going to be huge stopping the run and getting that inside pressure that we need.”
Even without Lotulelei getting standout numbers last season, the Panthers still picked up his fifth-year option for the 2017 season. He’ll make $6.75 million next season and the Panthers could reach a long-term deal with him.
But it would be a far cry from the contracts of the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox and the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson, both of whom are in the $17-million-per-year range.
“A lot of these guys deserve it. A lot of the big-name guys getting paid,” Lotulelei said. “It’s hard working there. It’s a battle for both O-line and D-line. Everybody’s getting what they deserve.”
His play might go unrecognized, but Lotulelei still wants to do more. Though he doesn’t get caught up in tackles or sacks, Lotulelei desires to have a bigger impact along the defensive line.
Sure, it’ll help his future contract situation. But it’s more than that.
“It’s big not only for the contract but just to contribute to the defense,” Lotulelei said. “We’re trying to be the best. We’re starting this thing over from going to the Super Bowl.
“You’ve got to go out there and earn your money, but for me it’s bigger than that. I’ve got to be better.”