Panthers get their Star in first round of NFL Draft

jperson@charlotteobserver.comApril 25, 2013 

California Utah Football

Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (92) dives for California running back Isi Sofele (20) in the first quarter during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in Salt Lake City.

RICK BOWMER — AP

The Carolina Panthers landed their big “hog molly.”

Looking to fortify its defensive line, Carolina took Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick in Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft.

Lotulelei was considered a top-3 overall prospect before being diagnosed with a heart condition at the scouting combine in February. But he was cleared by Utah’s team doctor last month, and worked out for the Panthers following the Utes’ pro day.

It’s the first time the Panthers have taken a defensive tackle in the first round. Before Lotulelei, the Panthers had taken only one defensive tackle in the first 50 picks – Kris Jenkins went 44th overall in 2001.

A week before his first draft as the Panthers’ general manager, Dave Gettleman talked about the importance of adding big players on both sides of the line, calling such space-eaters “hog mollies.”

They got a big one in Lotulelei, who is 6-foot-3 and 311 pounds.

Lotulelei was a magnet for double teams his last two years at Utah, but still tallied 20 of his 22.5 career tackles for loss. In three seasons with the Utes, Lotulelei registered seven sacks, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles.

The draft could not have broken better for a Panthers team desperate for a big body along its defensive line. With the run on offensive tackles in the first four picks – and then two guards going in the top 10 – the Panthers had their choice of the top two defensive tackles – Lotulelei and Florida’s Sharrif Floyd.

Lotulelei, 23, is a native of Tonga who is married with two daughters. He helped lead Bingham High to a state title in Utah and played one season at Snow College, a two-year school in Utah.

Lotulelei becomes the fourth Utah player drafted by the Panthers. Two of the former Utes are the longest-tenured players currently on the roster and look destined for the team’s ring of honor – Steve Smith and Jordan Gross.

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