Idaho linebacker Kaden Elliss leads Vandals on both sides of the ball

Idaho Vandals linebacker Kaden Elliss reacts after scoring a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe last Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MOSCOW, Idaho – In future years, when all the games have been played and all the statistics that are making Kaden Elliss an anomaly in Idaho football have been compiled, the origin of the effort to add offense to the standout linebacker’s resume may be recalled differently.

Vandals head coach Paul Petrino certainly has a good claim as its founder. “Feed the studs” is one of his rallying cries, and Petrino has a track record of using defensive linemen as fullbacks and starters on special teams.

Elliss has a different take.

“I don’t know if Coach ‘P’ remembers this, but I do,” Elliss said.

From 2013 through last season, the Vandals were well-served by the tight end tandem of Deon Watson and Trent Cowan, who finished their careers with a combined 242 catches for 3,059 yards and 22 touchdowns.

“I remember telling coach, ‘When Deon and Trent are gone, if you ever need someone to catch a ball for you, I’d love to,’ ” Elliss said.

Petrino approached Elliss after last season and said he wanted to work him into the offense during spring ball.

The project to turn Elliss into a throwback football ironman is paying off for Idaho. Elliss has caught four passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns this season. It hasn’t detracted from his work at linebacker, where he has 51 tackles and four sacks.

Against Louisiana-Monroe last week, Elliss made the Vandals’ longest touchdown reception of the season, 45 yards, and finished as the leading tackler with 10. On the next play from scrimmage after he broke a tackle to score the touchdown, Elliss dumped Warhawks quarterback Caleb Evans for an 8-yard loss.

The previous week, in one of the Vandals’ few highlights in a 68-21 drubbing by Missouri, Elliss caught two passes, including one for a touchdown, and led the team with nine tackles and a sack.

Elliss also plays on the punt team. Against the Warhawks, when he saw Idaho only had 10 men on the field on a point-after attempt, he ran onto the field to block.

After the win over ULM, Vandals quarterback Matt Linehan said, “It turns out Kaden Elliss is pretty good at this sport. … On the field, Kaden Elliss is about as good as it gets.”

During Idaho practices, Elliss switches between defense and offense.

“They just come calling for me when they need me on offense,” he said.

Playing offense isn’t time stolen from Elliss’ preparation on defense.

“He’s such a good player and so smart he usually only needs one rep to understand something and get it down,” Petrino said.

Elliss, at a rangy 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, is working as a fullback, tight end and slot receiver.

“You’d like to be able to steal him and play him all the time on offense,” Petrino said. “But he’s so valuable” on defense. “You’ve got to be able to pick your times.”

Although Elliss’ role on offense continues to evolve, there are no designed runs from scrimmage or passes for him so far. He could probably handle it, though. Elliss was a high school option quarterback.

One of his roommates is Vandals holder and backup quarterback AJ Woodin. There’s a chance that Elliss could catch a ball from him.

“That would be pretty fun,” Elliss said. “Pretty cool.”

Vandals receiver Michael Garner is another roommate. These days, he and Elliss have receiver matters to discuss.

On defense, Elliss must understand an entire scheme. But on offense, he only has to know his job on a play.

Still, operating on that side of the ball, especially at tight end, has given him insights that are useful as a linebacker, especially on pass coverage. By seeing how they line up and where they are looking, Elliss has a better idea of what tight ends are going to do.

Linebacker colleagues Tony Lashley and Ed Hall expressed their envy at Elliss’ opportunity to play on the glamorous side of the ball in a particularly linebacker kind of way.

“They just keep telling me they’re going to whack me if they get the chance,”Elliss said. “Tony warns me, ‘Don’t come across the middle.’ ”