Utah football: He's still Star of the defense, but Lotulelei needs help
Utah's Star Lotulelei is a mountain of a man who can toss around offensive linemen like no other defensive tackle in college football.
The senior has a team-high seven tackles for a loss, has forced two fumbles and is tied for the team lead with three pass breakups.
His start against highly touted USC center Khaled Holmes was an opening series of sheer domination as he knocked the ball loose twice and tackled USC running back Silas Redd for a 3-yard loss.
Plays such as those, or his seven-tackle, forced fumble and batted-down field goal effort against BYU, are reasons Lotulelei is expected to be one of the highest defensive players taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Lotuelelei moved to the top of ESPN's mock draft recently, with NFL draft analyst Todd McShay giving him props for his consistent, dominant play.
"He has clearly separated himself from the rest of the defensive tackle class, and his overall skill set makes him a game-changer on the inside," McShay wrote.
No doubt, Lotulelei is the center of Utah's defense. Unfortunately, his reign doesn't extend to the edges, where Utah's pressure has dropped off, creating one of the few defensive deficiencies the Utes have yet to solve.
While the Utes have a defense that is giving up just 23.6 points and 332.9 yards a game ranking near the top of the Pac-12 in both categories the Utes still are failing to get many sacks or interceptions. Utah has just two picks this year (after snagging 19 last season) and only 13 sacks.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said both areas must be improved before season's end.
The interceptions in particular bug Whittingham because Lotuelelei and the rest of the interior line are collapsing the pocket on quarterbacks, which should make for some easy pickings.
"We are doing the same thing we've done year after year, but we aren't getting the good takeaways this year," the Utah coach said.
Compounding the problem is the Utes' inability to get to the quarterback. It's a frustration the players feel as much as Whittingham does, said defensive end Joe Kruger.
Quarterbacks such as Matt Barkley and UCLA's Brett Hundley were adept at escaping Utah defenders just when it seemed the Utes might take them down.
"All the teams are focusing on Star and that should free us up, but we haven't been able to get to the quarterback," Kruger said. "That has to be the main focus for us this week. We need to get to the quarterback, get some sacks and get a win to get the season back on track."
The good news for the Utes is that Cal allows 4.1 sacks per game, which gives the Utes hope they can be more productive when the teams play at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"It's definitely frustrating," Lotulelei said. "We know we need more pass rush and get some sacks."
Despite being projected to go high in the 2012 draft, Lotulelei decided to return for his senior year because he felt he wasn't ready physically for the NFL and he didn't want to miss out on one more year of the college experience.
However, the experience of losing four games in a row wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
"It definitely sucks," he said. "But we keep working hard each week and every day and keep grinding and hoping we can turn this season around."
Lotulelei says he doesn't have any regrets about his decision to return, despite the struggles.
"I am having a great time, and I love being around my teammates and playing hard for them," he said.
Lotulelei's consistently stellar play certainly hasn't hurt his draft standing.
"He is having an exceptional senior year," Whittingham said.
Lotulelei has done his part, and now it's up to the rest of the defense to close the deal, Kruger said.
"The last two days we've been working on our hands and technique and getting back to fundamentals," he said. "It's frustrating, and we know we've got to do a better job."
Star Lotulelei file
Year • Senior
Position • Defensive tackle
Height/weight • 6-foot-4, 320 pounds
Of note • Has 27 tackles and leads the team with seven tackles for loss. ... Named a midseason first-team All-American by Sporting News, CBSsports.com and Phil Steele. ... Projected to be a top-five NFL pick by ESPN.com and CBSsports.com.
Cal at Utah
P Saturday, 7:45 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network