When the Carolina Panthers selected defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the team’s first- and second-round draft picks in 2013, the duo was projected to solidify the middle of Carolina’s defensive line.
But through their first two years in the NFL, Lotulelei and Short (called KK by his teammates and coaches) saw limited time on the field together, as Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole helped form a four-man rotation at defensive tackle.
Lotulelei and Short spent that time learning from the veterans, and as they’ve continued to grow and develop, their relationship blossomed. Now, entering their third season with the Panthers, the tandem has predominantly held both starting spots during Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
“We both want to be the two everybody talks about,” Short said. “We don’t want to be all Star this or Kawann this. We just both want to be together as a dominant force, and it’s hard to block those guys.”
After a strong finish to his rookie campaign, Short tallied 38 tackles and 31/2 sacks in 16 regular-season games in 2014. He started his first career game in a Week 8 loss to Seattle and remained a solid contributor as a starter for the rest of the season.
While Short took a step forward in 2014, injuries hampered Lotulelei in his second season. After recording 47 tackles and three sacks as a rookie, Lotulelei sprained his ankle against Philadelphia in Week 10, forcing him to miss two games.
Lotulelei returned and posted a combined 11 tackles and two sacks in wins at Atlanta in Week 17 and against Arizona in the NFC wild-card round. But in practice leading up to Carolina’s divisional-round loss to Seattle, he fractured his foot, ending his season.
The Utah product was cleared to start running again in late April, and coach Ron Rivera said Lotulelei has come back strong in OTAs.
“(Lotulelei’s development) is still trending up,” said Rivera following Monday’s practice. “Last year he struggled a little bit. The injury was the biggest thing at the end of the year and during the year, for the most part. But he really is trending up.
“He and KK are really developing a great rapport with one another.”
The chemistry between Lotulelei and Short is as evident off the field as it is on it. Nos. 98 and No. 99 regularly hang out away from the field. When Lotulelei arrived early for OTAs in 2014, he stayed with Short.
The two bond over food and video games. When it comes to “Call of Duty” or “NBA 2K,” Lotulelei and Short remain competitive.
“I’m more of the serious side when it comes to video games than he is,” Lotulelei said. “But we kind of give each other some (grief) when we’re playing. We talk a little trash to each other. It’s all in good fun, just like it is on the field. We’re always trying to help each other out.”
Every day before practice, Lotulelei and Short meet, walk to practice and leave the field at the same time. They constantly tell each other what they need to work on together, and whenever one of them needs to work on something individually, the other helps.
“We’re still growing. We’re still learning,” Lotulelei said. “We definitely have got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way since our rookie year, and I think we’re just going to get better from here on out.”
Edwards and Cole will remain a part of the rotation, but Lotulelei and Short believe it’s their time to take the reins at defensive tackle.
“We just knew (when we were drafted) they needed us and we needed to come here right away to produce and help this team win,” Short said. “We’ve felt like we’ve done that, and now we just feel like we need to take it to the next edge.”