Star Lotulelei to the Carolina Panthers? We should have guessed that, given Carolina's history.
Lotulelei, taken as the 14th pick in the first round by Carolina in the 2013 NFL draft Thursday, joins a line of Utes who have played for the Panthers.
The current roster includes tackle Jordan Gross (1st round, No. 8, 2003) and receiver Steve Smith (3rd round, 74th overall, 2001).
Defensive back R.J. Stanford was taken in the seventh round (223rd overall) in 2010 before moving onto Miami.
Other players who had stints in Carolina are receiver Kevin Dyson (1998) and defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (2002).
In addition, former Ute Fred Graves (1969-71) coached the receivers at Carolina in 2011-12 before moving on to the San Diego Chargers.
Lotulelei declined an invitation to New York and watched the draft at his Utah home with more than 100 supporters.
"I couldn't be happier to be a Carolina Panther," Lotulelei said in a statement provided by his agent, Bruce Tollner. "It was great to get the phone call from the Panthers. Real happy...very emotional...real happy to be in this position."
Among those who attended Lotulelei's draft party was Utah coach Kyle Whittingham who was thrilled that Lotulelei went to Carolina, but also surprised Lotulelei didn't go earlier.
"Our guys have done well there and I am happy for him," Whittingham said. "I know what type of player he is. I saw him every day and know his capabilities. There is no doubt in my mind he will anchor that defensive line for years to come."
Lotulelei is the seventh first-round draft pick in Utah football history and is the highest overall draft choice behind Alex Smith (No. 1 in 2005, San Francisco), Gross and Lee Grosscup (No. 10 in 1959, New York Giants).
There are now 23 Utes on current NFL rosters.
"I'm stoked, ready to get out there and go to work," Lotulelei said. "I couldn't be happier with the team that picked me. I'm ready to go out there and do whatever the team needs me to do."
Whittingham said Lotulelei has all the tools he needs to succeed in the pros.
"He is a great technician with good pad level and he is a gap eater," Whittingham said. "He eats up those gaps inside."
Lotulelei, who made six All-America teams as a senior, could graduate from Utah this summer with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He is married with two daughters.
Whittingham hopes several more Utes will land with NFL teams including offensive lineman Sam Brenner, defensive end Joe Kruger and returner Reggie Dunn.
"I had a lot of people contact me about Reggie Dunn after his pro day," Whittingham said. "Hopefully three or four guys still have a shot."
- Lya Wodraska
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