Lotulelei headed to combine

John Lotulelei recalls Kaluka Maiava from their lone encounter, eight years ago at Old Wai-luku Gym.

“I remember talking to him when I was in the 8th grade when he was a senior in high school,” Lotulelei said via telephone Thursday. “The first question I asked was, ‘Are you related to (professional wrestler) The Rock?’ and he answered, ‘Yes.’ Then we went back to lifting weights. That’s probably the first time I ever talked to him and the only time I ever did.”

Lotulelei, a 2009 Baldwin High School graduate and Nevada-Las Vegas senior, punched that conversation into his mental calculator and pushed multiply.

In January, it added up to an invitation to next week’s NFL scouting combine, the latest way Lotulelei is following in the pioneering footsteps of Maiava, a former Baldwin and Southern California linebacker who just finished his fourth season with the Cleveland Browns.

Maiava was the first former Maui Interscholastic League player invited to the combine, the first drafted and the first to play in the NFL.

Lotulelei is on the brink of joining him after a four-year journey through Merced (Calif.) Junior College and UNLV – one that continues with 18 credits this semester so he can walk in the graduation ceremony in June.

“I was pretty excited,” Lotulelei said between class and working out on Thursday. “I knew they were considering me going (to the combine), but I never thought that they would actually confirm that I was going. A lot of things were going through my mind. When I found out I was going, I was in a rush to work out that day.”

Lotulelei’s goals include bench pressing 225 pounds 25 times and running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 to 4.7 seconds – those would be standout numbers for a 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker.

“I should be somewhat ready,” he said. “I’m probably not going to do the best that I can do. I have only had four weeks (to work out), but I am going to go into the combine pretty confident. I have come a long ways to get to where I’m at right now.”

Obviously, the immediate goals after the combine are a call during the NFL draft in April and a roster spot in the fall.

“What was going through my mind was just never stop and keep my motor going in what I’m trying to pursue,” Lotulelei said. “Not letting anything get in my way. The NFL is really exciting to look at, to look forward to.”

Jimmy Morimoto, UNLV’s director of player personnel and assistant recruiting coordinator – and a former Baldwin linebacker himself – coached Maiava for four seasons as a Bear and Lotulelei for two.

Lotulelei’s development from then to now?

“Huge, being that guy from Maui myself,” Morimoto said. “Just working hard, he is going to get that degree, which is what we’re most proud of. Having to go through (junior college) as a nonqualifier, working hard, getting that (associate’s) degree, and then coming to this university and continuing to work hard.”

The opportunity on the field arrived during the 2011 season, and Lotulelei grabbed it. He played in all 12 games, starting the final four, and finished with 60 tackles.

“In the beginning it was a little tough for him, learning everything on the fly, but when he got his opportunity about midway through the season due to a starter getting injured, he was prepared for that role against Boise State and he just never looked back,” Morimoto said. “He just got better every week.”

Lotulelei had 120 tackles in his senior season – 44 more than anyone else on the Rebels – with 1 1/2 for loss, as well as three passes defended, one intercepted, three quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a spot on the Butkus Award list. All of it catapulted him into the NFL discussion.

“It is kind of overwhelming to see myself in that position,” Lotulelei said. “I put my faith in God and I cannot believe that he has brought me this far.”

The last UNLV player drafted was offensive lineman Joe Hawley in 2010 – he still is with the Atlanta Falcons. The Rebels have not had a linebacker taken in the draft since Beau Bell went in the fourth round to Cleveland in 2008.

“He has that determination and drive,” Morimoto said. “I still see him every day, we talk all the time. He knows what he wants to do with his future and that is not out of the question for him, he definitely can be playing on Sundays.”

Morimoto said Maiava and Lotulelei share more than a position and size (Maiava is listed at 6-0, 229).

“Just the work ethic, they both knew what they wanted to do – that’s what I see as similarities between those two guys,” Morimoto said. “I think they are two different styles of linebackers, but the determination is there, they have the heart and that drive that will get them to Sunday. Kaluka’s already there and John will be there.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com