Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Starlite is proving be star bright for the Utah Utes.
Although he goes by a shortened version of his first name, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei isn't cutting any corners on the field, or in the classroom. He's put sure-fire NFL riches on hold to complete his sociology degree and play his senior season of college football.
It's a decision he doesn't regret.
"There was never any doubt when I decided to stay," said Lotulelei, who is on track to graduate this fall.
Lotulelei is taking a lot of pride in completing his education. It's something his parents have always pushed for and he's determined to get it done.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn't surprised.
"Education is very important to Star," he said while noting that Lotulelei is married and has a family. "We all know that a football career can be a fleeting proposition and to have that degree in hand in December is very important to him. I'm proud of him for making that decision."
Lotulelei's coach at Bingham High, Dave Peck, is equally pleased with how things have worked out at Utah.
"I think it tells you how he has grown up and matured as a person. Back when he was younger, Star really struggled in school and it just wasn't something that he felt was real important to him," Peck said before noting that Lotulelei narrowly got into the University of Utah after attending Snow College. He wound up in Ephraim when academic woes stymied his original commitment to BYU. "Over the last couple of years, I tell you, I just think he's matured a ton. I think his decision to go back and work on getting his degree was huge because he probably would have been a first-round draft choice this year.
"You look at all the money that goes along with it and that would be a tough decision to turn that down," Peck added. "It's him growing up and him really looking at things a little bit different than he maybe would have a few years ago. I'm really proud of how he's come along and what he's accomplished."
On the field, Lotulelei reached the pinnacle of success last season by receiving the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman — an award voted upon by the players. In addition, the 6-foot-4, 325-pounder earned first-team all-conference honors and was named the top lineman in Utah's Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
"There's a lot of things I need to work on even though I had those accomplishments last season," Lotulelei said after a spring practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Improving his techniques and getting in better shape are among the things the senior wants to work on before moving on to the NFL.
"We challenged him to be better than he was last year, which is really, really good," said Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "So I think he's really excited to do that."
Lotulelei knows it'll be a challenge, but he's looking forward to it.
"I'm really trying polish up right now, polish up on technique and all that stuff with the rest of the D-line, the rest of the defense," Lotulelei said while praising pretty much everyone in the program for his success. He considers the Morris Trophy to be more of a team award than an individual accolade.
Lotulelei's humbleness, Whittingham noted, is part of what makes him a great leader.
"I can't say enough good things about Star, from his leadership to his play to how he conducts himself off the field to academically," Whittingham said. "He certainly would have been drafted high this year had he come out. But it's our belief that he can come back and have a great senior year. He'll improve his stock even more, plus he'll have a degree in hand."
The combination, thereof, adds to Lotulelei's appeal as a leader.
"He's a guy that's been through all the fire and he's been through the battles on the field. So guys really, really respect him and they respond well whenever he speaks," Sitake said. "But more than anything he's really humble and he doesn't just say it, he leads the way. I'm really grateful that he's back."
The reasons are plentiful and the upside is high, way high.
"Going into last season we felt that he had a chance to be one of the best defensive linemen in the conference. He proved to be the best as evidenced by the Morris Trophy award," Whittingham said. "If you want to build a defense, there's not a better guy to build it around than Star Lotulelei."
Last season, Lotulelei led a Utah defense that gave up an average of just 97 rushing yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry. Lotulelei finished the season with 44 tackles, including nine behind the line of scrimmage. He also had 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 17-yard pass reception on a fake punt.
Despite it all, Lotulelei opted not to seek an evaluation from the NFL Advisory Committee about turning pro after his junior season.
"There was really no use in me really finding out all that stuff," Lotulelei said. "I think if I do my job, if I help this team out and we go a little bit further than we did last season, I think all that stuff will work out the way it's supposed to. So I really wasn't too worried about that."
Lotulelei did weigh his options, however. He even consulted with former teammate Sealver Siliga, who left early and went undrafted before signing on as a free agent. Lotulelei acknowledged that had a "little bit" to do with his decision to remain in school.
"He actually talked to me about it," Lotulelei said. "… He was actually one of the ones who advised me to stay, finish out my schooling here and finish out my senior year. So with him telling me those kind of things it really helped out."
The players, however, had different circumstances surrounding their decisions.
Lotulelei, wife Angelina and the couple's two children are currently living with his parents for free. The grandparents help with the kids, as do the in-laws, when Star is at school and his wife is at work.
"They've made it a lot easier on us," Lotulelei said.
All hasn't gone smoothly, however.
Angelina is a cashier at a restaurant and has had people ask what her husband was thinking. She wouldn't be working right now if he opted for the NFL.
Other folks, though, have thanked Lotulelei for his decision to finish school and set a great example.
"It's really just something that I want to do for myself, for my family, and for my wife and kids — getting that education and that degree," Lotulelei said.
Until then, the NFL is on the back burner. It's not something he's worrying about.
"I'm really focused on spring ball right now with this team, trying to get better as a D-line, as a defense, as a team as a whole," Lotulelei said. "When (the NFL) comes I'll start thinking about it, but for right now I'm really just focused on what we're doing here and looking forward to the season."
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