Utah's Lotulelei rebounds, finishes job
DT battled grades, weight issues to become high NFL prospect
Star Lotulelei – standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 320 pounds – had no trouble lifting sofas and armoires.
Shouldering the burden of disappointing his parents, however, was too heavy a weight to bear.
Lotulelei, an all-state high school defensive lineman in Utah, found himself moving furniture, not offensive linemen, after graduating. He didn’t qualify academically after committing to BYU, where his father had received a doctorate. Despondent, Lotulelei abandoned school and football for a year.
His mother chided him for not pressing on when he met an obstacle. After all, his primary responsibility on the football field was to simply push forward no matter the level of resistance. Unwilling to disappoint her, he enrolled at Snow College – a two-year school in Utah – righted his grades and once again imposed his will on the field. That led to a scholarship from Utah, where he has transformed into one of the nation’s top linemen and is a likley first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“It started with my mom,” Lotulelei said. “My parents really tried to get me to go back to school and to play football. That’s what they expected from me.”
Lotulelei moved to the U.S. from Tonga at age 9 and immediately felt himself drawn to the sport. Nine years later, he recorded 72 tackles and seven sacks for a Bingham High School team that went undefeated on its run to a state championship – a college scholarship was all but assured. And there was only one uniform he, and his parents, could envision him wearing. Lotulelei’s father often took him and his little brother to football games at BYU; the family grew enamored with the team. But his performance in the classroom didn’t mirror his dominance on the football field. The door at his dream school had shut.
“It was hard on me because I felt like I disappointed my parents,” he said. “I’d let them down. That was probably the hardest part about it.”
After the year moving furniture, Lotulelei recommitted himself to school and sport at the behest of his worried parents. At Snow, he amassed 14 tackles for loss in a single season despite playing as an interior lineman who frequently drew double teams. Schools nationwide paid little notice, but Utah, which had courted him in high school, expressed interest. He had righted his grades at Snow and, in 2010, was finally granted the Division I scholarship he had long craved, though he would be donning the uniform of BYU’s chief rival.
The fire had finally ignited – simply earning a scholarship wasn’t enough.
Soon after measuring himself against Division I talent, Lotulelei realized he couldn’t excel unless he transformed his body. Moving furniture and playing at the junior college level didn’t require him to maintain peak physical condition, so he indulged in as many burgers, chips and cookies as he could find. He ballooned to 350 pounds before arriving at Utah. Quickly, though, his diet changed and he shed 30 pounds. He’s now “a slim 320,” Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake joked.
At Utah, Lotulelei said, his parents no longer had to implore him to achieve his potential. Their example alone was enough to spur him to push through practices, workouts and the six hours of weekly team study hall outside of class.
“I’m real close with my mom and dad,” he said. “They’ve done a lot for me and my siblings. They’ve sacrificed a lot for me, so [working hard] is me giving back a little bit.”
He has given back more than enough. After acclimating to Division I play in 2010, Lotulelei exploded in 2011, earning the Morris Trophy – given to the Pac 12’s top defensive lineman – in Utah’s first season in the conference. His stats didn’t dazzle last season – 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks – but that was of little consequence to his opponents. The award was voted on by the conference’s offensive linemen, who were tasked to protecting their quarterbacks and tailbacks from the imposing Tongan. On every down, it requires two of them, sometimes three, to keep him at bay. By eating up multiple blockers, Lotulelei frequently frees up his teammates to make plays.
“The stats aren’t like, ‘Oh, wow, this guy makes every play,’” Sitake said. “He’s not going to lead the country in sacks or anything like that. He dominates the line of scrimmage at his part of the line and it allows our other guys to do their part.”
The multiple blockers are warranted. In one play last season, Colorado discovered that ignoring Lotulelei proves perilous. In the fourth quarter of their November clash, the Buffaloes called a running play off of the right tackle. Lotulelei lined up along the left side of the offensive line and Colorado’s guards let him roam free, pulling to the right to set up a wall for speedy 5-foot-7 running back Tony Jones. Colorado had assumed the giant couldn’t catch up from the backside – an error in judgment. Lotulelei sped parallel to the line of scrimmage, step for step, with Jones and took a swipe at him with his left arm, like a grizzly batting at fleeing prey. Though he seemed to barely graze Jones’s left shoulder with his paw, the diminutive running back spun violently down to the turf for a loss of several yards.
“[It’s rare] to look at a guy like him with his unique ability to run while being so big,” Sitake said. “The sky is the limit for him.”
Despite his overwhelming physical skills, Lotulelei is soft-spoken. He has grown more vocal as a senior, but still motivates his younger teammates though example, just as his parents did for him.
“It you’re a young D-lineman or a young guy on this team and you see this big monster running hard and working hard and doing everything right, it gets you to buy in,” Sitake said. “‘If this guy is doing it, I’m going to do it too.’”
But the spotlight awaits the quiet giant; it’s unavoidable. Lotulelei currently stands No. 9 on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s rankings of potential 2013 NFL Draft picks. Other prognosticators have gone as far as to project him as next year’s top pick.
Potential riches awaited Lotulelei after his breakout 2011 season, but, ever humble, he felt he needed to improve his footwork, his hand placement, even his strength before he turned pro. Plus, to the delight of his parents, he’ll soon be able to add “college graduate” to his résumé. His decision to put the NFL on hold also rewards the team that had faith in him despite his academic troubles and his year away from the game.
“Utah was the one school that stuck with me,” Lotulelei said.
So, for one more season, he stuck with Utah.