|Unheralded in a 2007 class with Simi Fili, Star Lotulelei (right) is now a headache to opponents. (Getty Images)|
In 2007, the state of Utah produced a massive defensive tackle, touted by recruiting observers as one of the best in the nation. Utah's Star Lotulelei, now pegged by many NFL Draft analysts as the country's top interior defensive lineman and a potential top-10 pick, was in that recruiting class, too. Only Lotulelei, now a 315-pounder, was an unheralded three-star prospect who weighed 240 pounds. Few people knew his name.
The blue-chipper, Simi Fili, signed with Oregon, but bounced around between junior colleges and has drifted off the NFL's radar.
"He was a nice guy, but I've lost touch with him," recalled Lotulelei. "He was so big and strong. He could lift the world." Lotulelei's own college career almost never happened. He signed with BYU out of high school, but didn't qualify. Instead, he spent what would've been his freshman season delivering furniture for a store in Salt Lake City.
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"I hated that job," Lotulelei said Tuesday, while at Universal Studios for Pac-12 media day. "It was just a lot of stress, a lot of hassle with two- and three-hour drives.
"I thought about it a lot and told myself, 'I definitely want a better life.'"
He gained a different perspective on football and what it could do for him, especially after watching his little brother's freshman football games, he said. Lotulelei (his full name is Starlite) enrolled at Snow College. His body swelled. In his year moving furniture, he had gone from 240 to 275 and soon he was over 300.
While at Snow, he also met a woman who would eventually become his wife. She and his parents helped add fuel to his drive to someday become an NFL player, although it didn't take that long for the once-undersized lineman to eat his way to becoming a 350-pounder.
The Utah staff liked his potential. When he arrived in the Utes program in 2010, he shed 30 pounds. He worked his way into the starting lineup for Utah's final three games of the season.
Last season, Lotulelei blossomed. He earned the Morris Trophy, honoring the Pac-12's top defensive lineman, while anchoring one of the country's better defenses. Rival coaches called him a huge headache, a guy who gives them fits in game-planning and even bigger fits on gamedays.
"He's just got such awareness and that combination of great strength and agility," says teammate John White, a running back.
Many expected Lotulelei who, along with his wife and their two children, all live with his parents and his younger brother, might take the money and jump to the NFL. But he didn't.
"My decision for coming back -- I talked it over with my family -- we decided it was the best thing for me, because I didn't feel like I was ready to take the next step yet," he said.
"There are still a lot of things I need to work on as a football player. As far as knowing where I would go, I didn't ask, I had my decision made, and that's what I went with."
Among those things he wants to work on before he's finished at Utah was getting himself into better shape. He says he's down 10 pounds, from the 325 he played at in 2011. That wasn't easy. Right after the Utes' bowl win on New Year's Eve over Georgia Tech, Lotulelei gave up ice cream, chips and his favorite, Wendy's. He said his usual was to eat five Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers at one sitting.
But he knows what his focus must be. Lotulelei doesn't crave the spotlight, he says. He is trying to put all of the individual talk to the side and hone in on what his team needs in order to have a great season.
He also says he realizes how close a person can be from drifting off track and losing their direction. "It's a real thin line," he says. "For me, it really all depends on what your motivation is."