SALT LAKE CITY — Big news from the big man on campus.
Utah nose tackle Star Lotulelei has made a lot of folks up on the hill happy with his decision to return to the Utes for his senior season.
The 6-foot-3, 325-pound team captain, who was recently named the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 by his peers, is putting an NFL career on hold after weighing his options.
"I think it would be better for me and my family if I stayed," Lotulelei said while noting he consulted with his parents and wife, Angelina, after getting input from some scouts about his future. Education was also a big factor in Lotulelei's decision, as he'll earn his degree next fall.
"I'll be back and hopefully help the team to go a little bit further next season," added the first-team all-conference honoree, who is busy preparing with his teammates for the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech.
Lotulelei, who was double-teamed much of the season but still tied for the team lead with nine tackles-for-loss, is this year's winner of the Morris Trophy — an award presented each year to the Pac-12's top defensive lineman as voted upon by the conference's starting offensive linemen.
Lotulelei will be honored by the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle on Jan. 19. The former Bingham High and Snow College star acknowledged "it means a lot," especially to be recognized by players on opposing lines.
Same goes for being named to the Pac-12 first-team by league coaches.
"It's a big thing," Lotulelei said. "You're starting to get respect. You're starting to put yourself out there."
And the best may be yet to come.
"He's got that potential," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's got a chance to take his game him further."
Whittingham noted that the progress Lotulelei has made since arriving on campus as a sophomore has been tremendous. His hard work and focus, Whittingham continued, should lead to an excellent senior year as Lotulelei fine-tunes his game.
"It's great news for our program and I think he'll benefit from that," Whittingham said of Lotulelei's decision to return. "He's scheduled to graduate this time next year. Academics is obviously very important to him, as it should be, and also the opportunity to take his game to another level. He had a very good year this year, but he's still got even more room to improve and get better."
Lotulelei has made 38 tackles this season including 1.5 sacks. He also has a forced fumble, a pass breakup and a 17-yard reception (on a successful fake punt) to his credit.
"There's always room to get better," Lotulelei said. ". . . Hopefully I help the team out a little more next season and get a little bit further."
Lotulelei is so confident in his decision that he opted not to seek an evaluation from the NFL's College Advisory Committee.
"I felt like there was really no point since I decided to come back," he explained. "It would have been nice to see, but I think I'll hold out on that and find out next season."
Besides, Lotulelei didn't want it to be any sort of distraction.
"He's just a great individual to have in our program," Whittingham said while praising Lotulelei for having high character and being a good family man.
Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a also had kind things to say about Lotulelei.
Sitake said there's more to the player than his talent and the awards he's won.
"The most important part is he's a great teammate to our guys and a good young man," Sitake noted. "It's good for our young guys to see a guy like that stay in the program."
The decision to do so, he added, was all up to Lotulelei. Sitake said everyone is obviously happy about it.
Kauha'aha'a is appreciative of Lotulelei's work ethic and leadership by example.
"He's just a hard-working kid. He doesn't take anything for granted," said Kauha'aha'a, who pointed out that Lotulelei competes everyday like someone is trying to take his job. "He doesn't take any days off."
Lotulelei, he continued, is a natural athlete who takes advantage of his athletic ability by working extra hard.
Getting him back for another season is exciting for those he works with on a defense that ranks among the best in the Pac-12.
"It's a big deal for us. I love playing with Star. We've got pretty good chemistry I would say," said junior tackle Dave Kruger. "Star's the anchor of our d-line and it's going to be exciting next year."
HYUNDAI SUN BOWL
Utah (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4)
El Paso, Texas
Dec. 31, noon (MT)
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company