Utah football: Star Lotulelei now a 'difference-maker'
Three years ago, the University of Utah played in the Mountain West Conference and Star Lotulelei was an out-of-shape second-stringer at Snow College.
Yes, times change.
The Utes have moved to the Pac-12, of course, and a slimmer-but-still-mountainous Lotulelei anchors their defense.
Called a "difference-maker" with a professional future ahead of him by coach Kyle Whittingham, Lotulelei and the Utes visit rival BYU on Saturday night. It will be a homecoming for Lotulelei, who grew up in Provo, was a huge Cougar fan as a kid and signed with BYU out of high school.
"My dad was a student there and we lived in BYU housing," Lotulelei said. "He took me and my little brother to all the games."
After cheering for players such as Rob Morris and Brett Keisel, Lotulelei developed into a highly regarded football prospect at Bingham High School. As a senior, he starred for the Miners, who went 14-0 and won the Class 5A state championship.
Recruited by current BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, Lotulelei's initial choice of colleges was easy.
"Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to play at BYU," he said. "So I signed with them, but I didn't make my grades."
As a result, Lotulelei headed to Snow, where he struggled with his weight. The lack of conditioning limited his playing time.
At one point, he ballooned to 350 pounds.
Still, Lotulelei finished the 2008 season with 52 tackles, including three sacks.
With his grades in order, he reappeared on the radar screen of a handful of college recruiters, including Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitaki and cornerback-special teams assistant Jay Hill.
"I knew him coming out of high school I liked him right from the beginning," Sitake said. "I especially liked him in our system, with the four D-linemen we play. ... He's a good young man."
Along with Utah, Oregon State and Utah State recruited Lotulelei.
So did BYU.
"The Utah coaches came down to Snow a couple of times," Lotulelei said. "They showed me they really wanted me. It showed me they really cared. So coming here wasn't that hard of a choice."
Far from a finished product, however, Lotulelei started to work immediately.
Working out with an uncle, he dropped 20 pounds.
After he arrived at Utah just before the start of the 2010 season, he quickly lost 30 more and changed from a junior college back-up into someone the Utes plan to campaign for all-Pac 12 honors.
"Well," Lotulelei said, "I like to think I worked hard. ... I got very out of shape for awhile. But I started working and the coaches did a great job of helping me not only with my weight and football skills, but with everything else, too."
Sitake credits Lotulelei's work ethic and willingness to spend extra time in the weight room for his physical metamorphosis. The coach seems most proud of the steps Lotulelei has taken outside of football. however.
"Star is doing some great things with his life," he said.
Lotulelei, who turns 22 in December, is one of Utah's captains an undeniable sign of respect from teammates who have obviously watched his evolution.
"Star is a great player," said linebacker Chaz Walker, Utah's leading tackler through its first two games. "He's a very unselfish guy. He'll plug up a hole and take two [blockers] with him so we can make plays. ... As many tackles as I have, Star should be credited with those, too."
Sitake agrees that part of Lotulelei's value involves his ability to occupy more than one blocker, allowing linebackers and safeties to come up and make the plays that everyone notices.
"That's why he was voted captain," Sitake said. "He's an unselfish young man and he's a leader. He's not a vocal person, but his actions are all you have to see."
Asked by his coaches to regain some of the weight he lost, Lotulelei will play at "315 or 320" when he makes his return trip to Provo for the battle with BYU.
"Right now," Lotulelei said, "it's been really pounded into our heads that it's just another game. ... It will be a good game. We'll be ready to play."
Spoken like the leader of a Pac-12 defense.
"When you have young men come in and you see the changes they make from high school, it's exciting," Sitake said. "And he's doing some very good things."
Born • Dec. 20, 1989
Position • Nose tackle
Class • Junior
Height • 6-foot-3
Weight • 320 pounds
High school • Bingham
Highlights • Born in Tonga. ... Full name is Starlite Lotulelei (pronounced Lo-too-leh-lay). ... Sociology major. ... Married (Angelina) and father of a daughter, Arilani. ... Tribune All-State selection as a senior at Bingham, when the Miners went 14-0. ... Signed with BYU but never played. ... Attended Snow College for one year. ... Joined the Utes in 2010. ... Played in all 13 games last season, including three starts. ... Finished with 21 tackles.
Slowing the Run
The rushing statistics for Utah's opponents in the first two games this season:
Montana State*29*75*2.6*W, 27-10