No one who knows Star Lotulelei was surprised when the former Utah standout turned down a chance of attending the NFL Draft in person. As Utah coach Kyle Whittingham aptly put it, Lotulelei “is not a limelight guy.”
However, Lotulelei can’t escape attention forever. Even though he’ll be watching the draft from his Utah home, Lotulelei will still be one of the most talked-about players as the NFL Draft begins.
A top-five pick on many draft boards before a medical exam at the NFL Combine revealed a heart condition, projections for Lotulelei’s place in the draft are mixed after follow-up exams showed his heart was fine. One mock draft shows him going fourth, another 10th and yet another 26th.
Will a team take a chance on him and call his name early? Whittingham, for one, doesn’t view such a pick as much of a risk.
After watching Lotulelei develop not only as a football player but as a man, Whittingham believes Lotulelei is the complete package teams seek in high draft picks.
“He has come a long ways,” Whittingham said. “There was a particular point in his life when academics weren’t as much of a priority, and he has really grown up and matured. He sees the big picture better now.”
Physically, few doubt Lotulelei can excel in the NFL. Lotulelei made a somewhat surprising decision last year to return for his senior year following a standout season in which he was named the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12.
He said he returned to the Utes because he wanted to enjoy the team atmosphere one last time. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.
“I wanted to work on my game and get stronger,” he said. “I played OK, but I wanted to get in the weight room and get in better shape.”
His decision turned out to be a good one. All he did his senior year was increase his draft stock.
Lotulelei made six All-America teams and had a team-high 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. His most impressive moments came against USC when he dominated the Trojans’ much-hyped center Khaled Holmes. Lotulelei caused two turnovers and tackled USC running back Silas Redd for a 3-yard loss in the opening minutes.
The Trojans might not have been beaten, but Holmes sure was.
“There were a lot of plays that Star made for us, but that had to be the most impressive game,” Whittingham said. “He was going up against a very good center, one of the best in the country, and Star dominated.”
Unable to work out at the NFL Combine because of the heart issue, Lotulelei put any doubts about his physical prowess to rest at Utah’s pro day.
He weighed in at 6-4, 314 pounds, which was about 10 pounds less than his playing weight last year, and excelled in all the drills — including the bench press, in which he benched 38 reps.
Lotulelei was confident following the session that he had done enough to satisfy any naysayers.
“I gave everything I had, but I know there is a lot of film out there of me and they’ll be basing a lot off that,” he said.
That kind of statement is as close as Lotulelei gets to gloating about himself. The quiet, humble guy is similar to former Utah great Luther Elliss in Whittingham’s mind. Elliss, selected as the 20th pick overall in the 1995 draft by Detroit, played in the NFL for 10 years and was selected to the Pro Bowl twice.
Few doubt Lotulelei has the potential for a similarly long career.
“He is soft-spoken, but on the field he is a different person,” Whittingham said.
The NFL world is about to find out just how true Whittingham’s statement is. Lotulelei can’t lay low for much longer.
Utah draft possibilities
The sure bet • Star Lotulelei, DT, 6-2, 311. With questions about his physical condition answered, Lotulelei once again is expected to be one of the first players taken
The gamble • Joe Kruger, DE, 6-6, 269. No one questions Kruger’s athletic ability, but his decision to leave school early is another matter, was his departure premature?
The unknown • Reggie Dunn, WR, 5-9, 178. Dunn was the buzz of Utah’s pro day after he ran the 49-yard dash in 4.25 and 4.26. His speed and the attention he drew after four 100 yard kickoff returns just might earn him a shot.
The others • Offensive lineman Sam Brenner (6-4, 305), receiver DeVonte Christopher (6-1, 200), corner Ryan Lacy (5-9, 186) and defensive tackle Dave Kruger (6-5, 300) are others hoping to get a shot at the NFL.
O Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN