SALT LAKE CITY — Star Lotulelei is headed to the Carolina Panthers. The Utah defensive tackle was taken with the 14th pick in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night.
"I'm thrilled to finally know where I will begin my professional football career,” Lotulelei said in a statement released through agent Bruce Tollner. “I've heard great things about the Carolina organization and the city of Charlotte. I can't wait to get started."
In comments to the Carolina media, Lotulelei noted that he was “stoked” about his NFL destination.
“I couldn't be happier with the team that picked me,” he said. “I'm ready to go out there and do whatever the team needs me to do.”
Lotulelei added that it was great to get the telephone call from the Panthers and that he’s eager to work with their defensive staff.
Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman acknowledged the team's enthusiasm.
"What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap," said Gettleman, who noted that the Panthers really like Lotulelei's size and power. He expects him to thrive in their scheme.
So, too, does Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
“I think it’s a great fit,” Whittingham said. “Star is excited about it and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Whittingham was among a crowd of what he estimated was 150 or so family and friends who gathered at the Lotulelei family home in South Jordan to watch the draft with Lotulelei. The coach likes the scheme Lotulelei is headed to and noted that Carolina is a great place to live.
It’s familiar territory for the Utes. Wide receiver Steve Smith and offensive tackle Jordan Gross have both been on the Panthers for more than a decade. Defensive lineman Ma’ake Kemoeatu played with the team from 2006-09.
“We’ve had good luck with the Panthers,” Whittingham said.
Although surprised that Lotulelei was still on the board at No. 14, Whittingham noted that he’s seen some funny things happen in the draft. He also noted variables such as circumstances and needs by specific teams often impact selection order.
Regardless of when Lotulelei was taken, Whittingham said Carolina is getting a tremendous football player.
“I would want him to anchor my defensive line any day,” Whittingham added.
Lotulelei earned All-America recognition as a senior. He also netted first-team all-conference honors for the second consecutive season. In 2011, Lotulelei received the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12’s top defensive lineman and was named the Sun Bowl’s Most Valuable Lineman.
Statistically, the former Bingham High School and Snow College standout concluded his three-year Utah career with 107 tackles, 22 1/2 tackles for loss, seven sacks, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. He did so despite being double- or triple-teamed much of the time over his final two seasons when he started all 25 games.
Lotulelei’s professional future, though, was uncertain after a heart test at the NFL scouting combine in February revealed an abnormality. After returning to Salt Lake City, however, extensive tests indicated that the condition was only temporary and Lotulelei was eventually cleared to participate in professional athletics without restriction.
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound lineman is the seventh Utah player to be taken in the first round, putting him on a list that includes quarterback Alex Smith (No. 1, 2005), offensive lineman Gross (No. 8, 2003), wide receiver Kevin Dyson (No. 16, 1998), defensive end Luther Elliss (No. 20, 1995), defensive back Norm Thompson (No. 17, 1971) and quarterback Lee Grosscup (No. 10, 1959).
Dating back to 1938, there have been 103 University of Utah players drafted by the NFL. The number could grow over the next two days.
Offensive lineman Sam Brenner, wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, return specialist Reggie Dunn, defensive end Joe Kruger and cornerback Ryan Lacy are the remaining Utes on the list of draft prospects on NFL.com. Other possibilities include defensive tackle Dave Kruger, running back John White, as well as cornerbacks Moe Lee and Reggie Topps.