Starlite Lotulelei Jr. (pronounced /ˌloʊtuːˈlɛleɪ/ LOH-too-LEL-ay; born December 20, 1989) is an American football defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League (NFL). He was drafted by the Panthers in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He played college football at University of Utah, and shared the Morris Trophy for the best lineman in the Pac-12 Conference.
High school and junior college career
A native of Tonga, Lotulelei attended Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah. Playing defensive lineman at 240 pounds, he helped the football team to a 14–0 record and a state title in 2006. Lotulelei registered 72 tackles and seven sacks as a senior.
|Name||Hometown||High school / college||Height||Weight||Commit date|
|South Jordan, Utah||Bingham||6 ft 4 in (1.93 m)||245 lb (111 kg)|
|Recruiting star ratings: Scout: Rivals: 247Sports: ESPN grade: 67|
Regarded as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, Lotulelei was listed as the No. 3 overall prospect from Utah. However, he was overshadowed by Oregon-bound Simione Fili of Cottonwood High School, who was labeled the best defensive lineman from Utah since Haloti Ngata, but eventually bounced around between junior colleges before falling into obscurity and finally becoming a strongman competitor. Lotulelei, too, failed to qualify academically for his original school of choice, Brigham Young University. He eventually spent what would have been his freshman season delivering furniture for a store in Salt Lake City. After a year, he enrolled at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. Now far over 300 pounds, Lotulelei played defensive line for the Badgers alongside James Aiono, and recorded 52 tackles with 14 TFL, three sacks and one forced fumble in 2008. Snow College reached the 2008 NJCAA National Championship Game, but lost 37–30 in double-overtime to Butler Community College.
Lotulelei took the 2009 season off to preserve another year of college eligibility. He was still recruited by BYU, but also Oregon State, Utah State, and Utah. "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."
In 2010, Lotulelei transferred to the University of Utah, and played in all 13 games for the Utah Utes football team, and became a starter for the final three games of the season. He totaled 21 tackles with 2.5 tackles for a loss, and also was credited for a half quarterback sack, which came against San Jose State in arguably his best game of the season (season-high five tackles). Lotulelei also made several appearances at offensive guard.
A regular starter in 2011, Lotulelei was an All-Pac-12 Conference performer and won the Morris Trophy as the league's best defensive lineman. He started all 13 games, and registered 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one pass breakup, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. His 9.0 tackles for loss tied sophomore linebacker Trevor Reilly for second on the team. In a 14–31 loss against Washington, Lotulelei had six tackles including 2.5 tackles for a loss. A week later he had five tackles in a 14–35 loss against Arizona State. Against California, Lotulelei surprised with a 17-yard reception on a fake punt play. Utah finished the regular season 7–5 and played Georgia Tech in the 2011 Sun Bowl. Lotulelei made six tackles and recovered a fumble and was awarded the Jimmy Rogers, Jr. Trophy for the Most Valuable Lineman.
Lotulelei returned to the University of Utah for his senior year, and started in all 12 games at nose tackle. He recorded 42 tackles included a team-high 11 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, while also having four pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. A season-high seven tackles plus two pass breakup came early in the season in a 24–21 win against the school to which he had previously committed, Brigham Young. Lotulelei blocked a 51-yard field goal attempt with 1 second remaining following a third-down incompletion. Two weeks later, Lotulelei had a heralded performance against All-Pac-12 center Khaled Holmes of the USC Trojans in a 28–38 loss for the Utes.
2013 NFL Draft
Forgoing the chance of a professional career in 2012, Lotulelei decided to return to Utah after the 2011 season. In preseason mock drafts from May 2012, Lotulelei was listed as a late first-rounder for the 2013 NFL Draft as well. By mid-season, he had moved up to a top-3 spot. After the season concluded, Lotulelei was still projected to be picked among the first five selections. Utah had not seen one of their defensive linemen selected in the first round since Luther Elliss went 20th overall to the Detroit Lions in 1995. Lotulelei's rare combination of power, snap count anticipation, instincts, quickness, and athleticism frequently drew parallels to Haloti Ngata.
|Ht||Wt||Arm length||Hand size||40‑yd dash||10-yd split||20-yd split||20‑ss||3‑cone||Vert jump||Broad||BP|
|6 ft 2 1⁄2 in|
|33 5⁄8 in|
|9 3⁄4 in|
|5.31 s||1.89 s||3.12 s||4.65 s||7.76 s||30 in|
|8 ft 9 in|
|All values from Utah Pro Day (March 20, 2013), except for measurements, which are from NFL Combine|
Lotulelei was declared ineligible to participate in the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine after an echocardiogram revealed an abnormally low ejection fraction. While a normal heart will pump between 55 and 70 percent of the blood out of the left ventricle of the heart and into the body, Lotulelei's left ventricle was found to be pumping at only 44 percent. After further tests by cardiologists at the University of Utah, Lotulelei's condition found to be caused by a viral infection and eventually disappeared, showing "complete normalization of the heart muscle function." Lotulelei has been cleared "to participate in professional athletics without restrictions."
A month after the combine, Lotulelei worked out in front of NFL personnel at Utah's Pro Day. He reportedly "looked strong in all the position drills," and registered 38 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, which would have tied him with Margus Hunt and Brandon Williams for the top mark at the combine. But despite being medically cleared, Lotulelei's falsely assumed heart condition tarnished his draft prospects. Early April mock drafts projected him to fall out of the top-10. However, Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd were "generally viewed as the top two [defensive tackles] in this class." Only a week before the draft, Lotulelei moved up to the No. 4 spot, right behind Floyd, in Sports Illustrated's' mock draft. He was drafted in the first round, 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers, as the second defensive tackle selected after Sheldon Richardson.
2013 season: Rookie year
On May 22, 2013, Lotulelei signed a four-year $9.60 million deal. He was named the starting defensive tackle in the 2013 season. On September 3, 2013, Lotulelei changed his jersey number from 96, to 98. He had his first NFL career sack against the New York Giants. In his rookie year, Lotulelei started all 16 regular games for the Panthers, recording 42 tackles, three sacks and 23 quarterback pressures. He finished second in the NFL in run stop percentage among defensive tackles at 12.9%, was rated by Pro Football Focus as the 6th best defensive tackle against the run, and helped Carolina improve from 14th in the NFL in run defense in 2012 (110.1 yards per game) to second (86.9 yards per game) in 2013. The Panthers finished first in the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013, second in points per game, and third in DVOA team defense. He was named to the All-Rookie teams by ESPN, ProFootballFocus, and SB Nation Lotulelei finished 4th in AP Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Lotulelei picked up from his strong rookie performance in his debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he recorded 1 quarterback hit, 2 quarterback hurries, and 1 tackle. Through the first week of the season, Lotulelei ranked among the top 10 defensive tackles in the NFL in pass rush productivity. During the final, win-or-go victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the final game of the regular season that catapulted the Panthers to back-to-back NFC South division titles, Lotulelei finished the afternoon with 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, 3 hurries during his pash rush opportunities on Matt Ryan while recording 4 stops on only 9 snaps against the run. For the season, Lotulelei recorded 21 defensive stops. In his first two NFL seasons, Lotulelei registered 46 run stops and 40 quarterback pressures.
Lotulelei's 2015 preseason was cut short by a stress reaction in his surgically repaired right foot and it further caused him to miss the first 2 games of the NFL season during which the Panthers were able to produce victories over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. During the Panthers week 4 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lotulelei recorded a key fumble recovery that led to points that gave the Panthers the lead in the game. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Lotulelei recorded 6 quarterback pressures. During the Panthers 37-29 victory over the Green Bay Packers that helped the Panthers move to 8-0 in the first time in franchise history, Lotulelei recorded his first sack of the season against quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Lotulelei had 22 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and 2 passes defensed on the season. The Panthers finished with a franchise best 15-1 record and went on to defeat the Seattle Seahawksand the Arizona Cardinals. On February 7, 2016, Lotulelei was part of the Panthers team that played in Super Bowl 50. In the game, the Panthers fell to the Denver Broncos by a score of 24–10. In the Super Bowl loss, he recorded five tackles.
On April 26, 2016, the Panthers picked up the fifth-year option of Lotulelei's contract.
On September 10, 2017, in the season opening 23–3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Lotulelei's teammate Wes Horton sacked quarterback Brian Hoyer and forced a fumble. Lotulelei recovered the fumble and set the Panthers up for an eventual touchdown scoring drive.