At the NFL scouting combine in February, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson approached Utahs Star Lotulelei, another highly rated defensive tackle, and tried to start a dialogue.
It was mostly one-sided.
Im not going to lie, I brought the conversation to him, Richardson said this week.
Richardson hasnt stopped talking.
The New York Jets, who visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, drafted Richardson with the 13th overall pick, one spot before Lotulelei went to the Carolina Panthers. But Richardson told ESPNNewYork.com last week hed probably be the No. 1 overall pick in a re-draft.
Meanwhile, Lotulelei has kept quiet, despite anchoring a defense that has improved from 10th to second in total defense since his arrival.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes the defenses ascension has been a three-year process. But Rivera said an argument could be made that Lotulelei was the missing piece a 6-foot-2, 315-pound hole-clogger with wide shoulders, a long beard and longer hair.
The only thing undersized about Lotulelei are his conversations.
Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards locker has been next to Lotuleleis all season, but only recently did Edwards get to know a little more about the native of Tonga.
Thats just his personality. Hes a quiet guy, Edwards said. As long as he plays like hes been playing on Sunday, thats all right with me.
Entering Sundays game against the Jets, Lotulelei (36 tackles) doesnt have the stats to match Richardson (66 tackles, 3.5 sacks) or some of the other defensive rookies.
Lotuleleis two sacks are tied for seventh on the team, and his 10 quarterback pressures are five fewer than the total for rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short, the Panthers second-round pick.
But Lotuleleis presence has helped keep blockers off middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last seasons Defensive Rookie of the Year, who is having another strong season.
And while Lotulelei predictably said little about his chances for the rookie award, Richardson believes Lotulelei deserves to be in the discussion.
Stars been balling, Richardson said. Hes been having a Rookie of the Year campaign, too.
An atypical NFL rookie
Lotulelei, 23, is not like most NFL rookies. When he leaves Bank of America Stadium after a day of practice, film study and meetings, he heads home to his wife, Fuiva, and their two daughters at the familys SouthPark apartment.
Lotulelei met Fuiva, who is also Tongan, when the two attended Snow Community College in Utah. Lotulelei tries to help his wife as much as he can during the season, cleaning up, taking the trash out and accompanying her to 4-year-old Arilanis ballet classes.
Lotuleleis younger brother, Lowell, is living with them in Charlotte before enrolling at Utah in the spring. Hell play defensive tackle for the Utes; he will not babysit for his brother in the interim.
Im not going to leave my kids with my little brother if I dont have to, Lotulelei said, laughing.
Lotuleleis parents who moved to the U.S. when he was 8 were in town for Thanksgiving. Lotulelei invited Short to join them for dinner, which included the traditional Thanksgiving fixings, along with a couple of Tongan dishes.
I cant even pronounce what he had. It was like some noodles that they had back where hes from, Short said. It wasnt bad at all.
It was one of the few times Short and Lotulelei have eaten together outside of the Panthers facility. When the defensive line gets together for Friday night dinners during the season, Lotulelei usually takes a rain check.
Not that Short blames him.
His wife cooks every day, Short said. So you cant skip a meal and leave and come eat somewhere else with the guys.
Edwards, 32, in his 10th season, said Lotulelei is more mature than most rookies or young players.
Hes been put in some adult situations obviously at a young age. I kind of went through the same thing myself, Edwards said. He definitely carries himself very well, very mature. Definitely very professional (for) his first year of football.
A pre-draft alarm
Lotulelei was thought to be a top-5 prospect when he arrived at the NFL draft combine in Indianapolis in February. But an echocardiogram detected an abnormality in Lotuleleis heart function, forcing him to sit out the workout portion of the combine and setting off alarms in scouting offices around the league.
About a month after the combine, Lotulelei was cleared after tests showed his heart function had returned to normal range.
Panthers team doctor Robert Heyer said earlier this fall that it appears a mild virus contributed to Lotuleleis abnormal echocardiogram reading at the combine. But Heyer said Lotulelei is completely normal now.
The initial scare caused Lotulelei to drop out of the top 10 on the first night of the draft. Lotulelei was still available when the Jets picked at 13, but Jets coach Rex Ryan thought Richardson was a better fit for their 3-4 scheme.
We have two nose tackles, big-body guys like Star, that we felt really good about (in Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis), Ryan said. I was looking for the real athletic, disruptive three-technique. ... We immediately took to Sheldon and hes been absolutely tremendous for us.
Panthers first-year general manager Dave Gettleman took Lotulelei, then added another defensive tackle in the second round in Short. The Panthers saw Short as more of a penetrator than the run-stuffing Lotulelei, although Lotulelei believes hes improving in that area.
Coming from Utah, where I just had to hold my gap (and) stay at the line, coming over here and trying to transfer to penetrating and getting upfield, I think Ive done a better job of that.
A signature moment
Lotuleleis signature play through his first 13 games came in Week 13 against Tampa Bay on a play in which he didnt get a sack or make a tackle. Lotulelei used a bull rush to drive Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson 5 yards into the backfield and plant him on his backside.
Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon was able to side-step Lotulelei and avoid the sack. But the quickness and strength Lotulelei demonstrated were not lost on his teammates.
It was an unbelievable play, Edwards said. His power and the force hes got coming off the ball is amazing.
Lotulelei has started every game, sharing time in a defensive tackle rotation with Short, Edwards and Colin Cole. That rotation has helped Lotulelei withstand the weekly punishment in the trenches and avoid the so-called rookie wall.
Thats a mans game inside. Youre talking a grown mans game with guys that are 28, 30, 32 years old. Thats some beef in there and some muscle, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. And heres a young rookie coming in and starting. And to play as consistent as he has all season long, and really no signs of wear yet with the rookie wall, I think his best footballs ahead of him.
Lotulelei said he tries to find something each week to work on.
So theres no way I can hit a rookie wall when Im trying to improve on something in my game each and every week, he said.
Panthers players say Lotulelei has a mean streak that belies his mild-mannered persona.
The one thing the guys say is dont get him mad because theres a different side of him, Rivera said. Hes like a raging bull.
Rivera said there are times hed like to see Lotulelei reach down deep inside and pull out that nasty side.
But good luck moving Lotulelei when he gets his feet set. Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert tried last week during a scrum pitting the backs and receivers against the defensive linemen.
We play-fight a lot around here. And he grabbed me, Tolbert said. I consider myself a big, strong guy. I tried to get away and I wasnt moving. So hes a stroooong guy.
Kyle Whittingham, Lotuleleis coach at Utah, said Lotulelei is doing exactly what I thought hed do and thats dominate the line of scrimmage.
Whittingham believes questions about Lotuleleis ability to penetrate are off base.
He certainly penetrated when he bull-rushed that Tampa Bay (lineman). Isnt that the ultimate penetration? Whittingham said. The bottom line with Star is physically hes capable of doing whatever they want him to do.
A quick impression
Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who also played at Utah, happened to be back on campus last spring when Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington put Lotulelei through a personal workout.
When Smith saw the Panthers had picked Lotulelei in the first round, he sent Gettleman a text.
I texted Dave Gettleman and said, Great. Im done looking at the draft. Good night. Turned the television off. I was good, Smith said. That was a guy I thought could help our team.
Smith has given Lotulelei a hard time about his shaggy hair and beard, calling him Brown Santa and Polynesian Santa.
Smith said he means well.
Hes a good-natured guy so we always joke around with each other. But also I do it to show him Im paying attention to him, Smith said. Im always watching him, and also encouraging him.
The Panthers two previous first-round picks before Lotulelei Cam Newton and Kuechly each won a Rookie of the Year Award. Whether Lotulelei keeps the streak alive or not, Smith paid him the ultimate compliment.
I think hell be a guy that doesnt get the recognition all the time, but you can tell when hes not there, Smith said. When hes in the game, you know hes in the game.
And undoubtedly, youll see Lotulelei before you hear him.
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