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El Paso, Texas • Asked about the standout players on Utah's defense, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson gives a similar reaction to many of the coaches whose teams have faced the Utes this year.

"I don't know how to pronounce his name right, but the guy, Star," he said.

That would be Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. While pronouncing his last name is a challenge for many, they all know after a few minutes of watching film that stopping the 6-foot-3, 325-pound junior is an even bigger task.

While others such as defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Tevita Finau get noticed for their pass rush, and safety Brian Blechen for his interceptions, Lotulelei might go unnoticed by casual observers, but he has developed a reputation for being the cog that makes Utah's defense so good.

Coaches, including Oregon State's Mike Reilly and Arizona interim coach Tim Kish, have all spoke glowingly of Lotulelei, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference team after finishing the regular season with 38 tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble.

He was also selected as the top defensive lineman in the conference by a vote of the offensive linemen, showing he has as much game as hype.

Lotulelei, a former Bingham High star who attended Snow College before joining the Utes last year, seems taken aback and almost uncomfortable with all the attention.

"I try not to get into all the media stuff," he said. "The only time I really hear about it is from my dad. He reads everything and will tell me about it. I appreciate it a lot, but I don't look at it too much."

Lotulelei prefers to focus on the future rather than the past. For the immediate future that means beating Georgia Tech and sending out Utah's seniors with a win.

"They are a running team so it's a good chance to show how solid our defense is," he said.

Lotulelei's more distant future is another year with the Utes. Lotulelei has squashed any talk that he might bolt a year early for the NFL, believing that as good of a year he has had, he and the Utes would benefit from another season together.

"There are some goals we have: I want to get us to a BCS bowl game," he said. "I want to make sure I'm ready to go to the next level, too, and be on top of my game going into the draft, physically and mentally."

Lotulelei's plans to return are welcome news to the Utah coaching staff, who were disappointed last year when defensive lineman Sealver Siliga left for what he hoped would be an NFL career, but he wasn't drafted.

"It's great news for our program and I think he'll benefit from that," Whittingham said of Lotulelei. "He's scheduled to graduate this time next year and academics are obviously very important to him, as it should be. There's also an opportunity for him to take his game to another level. He had a very good year, but he still has more room to improve and get better."

Lotulelei feels the same way as his coach, particularly after joining the team on the last day of fall camp and spending much of his time focusing on slimming down. He was 350 pounds when he arrived at Utah, dropped down to 305 and is back up to what the Utes consider a good weight for him, at 325.

"I felt really slow and my technique was off most of last year," he said. "It wasn't until the Notre Dame game [on Nov. 13] that I started to feel like I was on the same pace as the rest of the team. This season in the offseason, I worked a lot more on technique and conditioning and that has helped me a lot."

Lotulelei has plans for a busy offseason to help him continue his improvement, but for now he is focused on being the game changer Tech has heard so much about from other teams.

"I'm a team captain so every week I want to do my best and set an example," he said.

Twitter: @lyawodraska —

Sun Bowl

P Utah vs. Georgia TechSaturday, noon TV: Ch. 2