RENTON — Seahawks fans taking in the first exhibition game of the season Thursday night undoubtedly were first drawn to the hair of rookie linebacker John Lotulelei flowing out of the back of his helmet.
He hasn’t cut it since his freshman year of college, and doesn’t plan to cut it again until his football career is over.
“I’ll trim it, though, just to keep it healthy,’’ he said.
Seahawks coaches, meanwhile, have been more enamored with where that head of hair is usually traveling — often directly to the ball.
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“I think the first thing that jumped off on him was his instincts,” said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “As a linebacker, he really had a nose for the ball.”
That’s why the Seahawks made another aggressive personnel move to get him during the NFL draft. Lotulelei, who played his last two seasons at UNLV, wasn’t selected in the draft because he’s just 5 feet 11 and ran an underwhelming 40-yard dash of 4.84 seconds at the NFL combine. But even before the final pick, the Seahawks were one of a handful of teams to offer him a contract as an undrafted free agent.
“He was someone that we certainly targeted because he has the skills that we look for in a WILL (weakside) linebacker,’’ Quinn said.
Among those traits is an ability to move well laterally — Lotulelei’s time of 6.91 seconds in the three-cone drill was second-best among linebackers at the NFL combine.
Lotulelei also seriously considered the Washington Redskins, but ultimately signed with the Seahawks when Seattle offered him a signing bonus of $25,000, the most given to an undrafted free agent this year. It also didn’t hurt that an older sister works in Renton.
His stock improved markedly Thursday night when he made three tackles, one for a loss, on defense, and another on special teams — a hard hit on a kickoff that pinned the Chargers at their 15.
Quinn said Lotulelei’s play against the Chargers reinforced the improvement they have seen recently as he has become more familiar with the playbook.
“Over the last two weeks, we’ve really seen a spike in his level of play and how fast he can play,’’ Quinn said.
Lotulelei views not being drafted pragmatically.
“I was surprised, but I was prepared for the worst,” he said. “I came from a team that had a losing season — we were 2-11 — and then my height, of course. Everyone thought they could try and pick me up as a free agent.’’
Lotulelei, though, says being an underdog is a familiar position.
He graduated from Baldwin High School in Kihei, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, where his height and a slighter frame than the 233 pounds he now carries left him overlooked by college scouts, he said. A connection through one of his high-school coaches led him to play at Merced (Calif.) Community College.
That’s the last place he cut his hair.
“My parents didn’t let me grow my hair out in high school and my football team, it was mandatory to have a nice cut,’’ he said with a smile. “In college, I grew it out. I let it whip.’’
Now he’s hoping to make his family proud by making an NFL team. He’s one of 10 kids, many of whom are athletes. His younger brother, Tau, plays at UNLV, and a sister plays basketball at Merced. He’s also a cousin of Star Lotulelei, a standout at Utah who was taken in the first round by Carolina.
“I kind of feel like I have to do more than drafted players to earn respect,’’ he said. “And not only that, but to try to get on the team. … but being an undrafted free agent was fine with me. I knew I still had a chance to make any team. That’s the goal.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta.