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Utah football: A Star is born — Lotulelei’s NFL stock soars

One mock draft has defensive star No. 1 overall; others have him in top 10.

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Lotulelei acknowledges he didn’t always give 100 percent, but his outlook changed when he rededicated himself to the sport.

"Coming here, coach Whitt instills a lot of pride in us in working hard," he said. "That is something we try to do now, come out and work hard every day."

At a glance

Star Lotulelei file

Heightt/Weight » 6-4/325

Class » Senior

Position » Defensive tackle

Hometown » South Jordan

Noteworthy » All-America candidate was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick in 2011. … Won the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12’s best defensive lineman in 2011. … Most valuable lineman of the Sun Bowl. … Started all 13 games at defensive tackle. … Played for Snow College in 2008, then took 2009 off before joining the Utes. … Helped Bingham win the state title and go 14-0 in 2007.

Star’s stats

Season G/GS UT AT TFL Sacks

2010 13/3 7 14 2.5 0

2011 13/13 16 28 9.0 1.5

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Breakthrough season » His 2011 season was an eye-opener. Not only did the Utes watch Lotulelei take his play to another level, the Pac-12 also got an eyeful as he dominated the line of scrimmage in Utah’s new conference. His impact was such that not only did Lotulelei win a slew of postseason honors — he’s still being talked about by former Pac-12 players.

Offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, who was drafted by Oakland in the third round of the 2012 draft, said he is asked about Lotulelei almost more than himself when he runs into fellow linemen.

"At the combine and other places, they all want to know about him," Bergstrom said. "They all talk about how tough he was. For us, he set the gold standard in practice. We knew if we could move Star, we could move anyone. He is a freak of an athlete, but he’s a real mature guy, too."

Helping anchor Lotulelei is his wife, Angelina, who was a volleyball player at Snow College.

In an effort to maintain some level of privacy — and perhaps anticipating what is to come — Lotulelei wants to keep wife and his daughters, 3-year-old Arilani and 1-year-old Pesatina, out of the spotlight. However, it is obvious from the way his face lights up when discussing them just how much of an influence his family has been on him.

"They are the reason I work so hard," he said. "It’s hard on them when we are out of town so much in the season, but I want to take care of them."

Based on those draft projections, Lotulelei should do just fine financially. There were some worries at Utah that Lotulelei would turn pro after this past season, chasing the dollars sooner rather than later. However, discussions with Whittingham, other Ute coaches and his friend, former Ute defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, convinced him to stay.

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Siliga went against Whittingham’s advice and turned pro following his junior season in 2010. He went undrafted and only recently has found a promising role with the Denver Broncos as a candidate for the starting nose tackle job.

"We talked a lot," Lotulelei said. "He told me to work on my game because it’s not the same at the next level. But more than anything, he thought of Utah as a family here and how much he missed not playing his senior year. What he said made a big impact on me."

Bracing for what’s to come » Now, Lotulelei plans to make a big impact for the Utes in 2012. During the Utes’ first day of summer weight training, Lotulelei was easy to lose among his teammates, many of whom were jumping around, chest bumping and whooping and hollering in between sets.

Lotulelei lifted weights like he plays: He got the work done, then moved on with little fanfare.

"I’ve never been a guy who wants much attention," he said. "The spotlight is great, but I am just here to play football. I’ve got a lot of things to focus and work on."

Keeping that focus where it should be is one of the reasons he hopes to maintain some semblance of privacy even as the hype around him grows.

A humble guy verging on shy, it will probably be easier for Lotulelei to handle opponents on the field than all the attention that will soon come his way. A wild time for him is hanging at home with his kids, playing video games.

As for his game, Lotulelei admits he knows he is taking a risk of a possible career-ending injury, but he decided playing his final year, plus earning his degree in sociology, was worth the danger of suffering a potential injury.

Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said as good as Lotulelei is, he does indeed have areas in which to improve. Lotulelei may have won the 2011 Morris Trophy — which goes to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 as voted by the league’s offensive linemen — but he didn’t make enough big plays, Sitake said.

Lotulelei had 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks, not to mention that 17-yard pass play. But he needs to do even more, Sitake said.

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Star’s rise

The hype is already building around Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Here is a sample of where he is projected to go in the 2013 NFL Draft by various blogs and news organizations.

ESPN » No. 1, Indianapolis

The Gritz Blitz » No. 8, Dallas

CBS Sports » No. 2, Minnesota

Bleacher Report » No. 7, Washington

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