MOSCOW, Idaho – He’s the oldest of 12 children, the son of a former NFL All-Pro defensive lineman who laughs when talking about how he got his athletic genes from his mom.
He’s a sophomore linebacker on the University of Idaho football team, a 21-year-old whose success in his first two seasons would be hard to comprehend considering his background if you didn’t know how much he obsessed over his craft.
He’s the rare player who understands his assignments and everyone else’s on the Vandals’ defense.
None of this, however, defines Kaden Elliss. He’s a Christian first and foremost, and he says his passion for football flows from his faith.
“My faith is the most important part of my life,” Elliss says. “I’m a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ; that he died and rose from the dead. Honestly, without that, I wouldn’t be who I am. That’s what makes me tick, honestly.”
Faith, family, football – these are big themes in the Elliss household.
Luther Elliss, Kaden’s father, is the team chaplain for the Denver Broncos. Last year he and his wife Rebecca transplanted their family, which includes seven adopted children, from Salt Lake City to rejoin the organization he ended his 10-year pro career with in 2004.
Christian and Noah Elliss, Kaden’s younger brothers, are standouts at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, the same school that produced Stanford star Christian McCaffrey.
Then there’s Kaden, who communicates daily with his dad. Without the texts, calls and long father-son Skype sessions analyzing game film, Elliss knows he wouldn’t have finished second in tackles last year for Idaho as a grayshirt freshman – after having never played linebacker before.
This season Elliss is making a case to be the defensive MVP for the Vandals, who at 4-4 are two wins from bowl eligibility. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound SAM linebacker leads Idaho with two forced fumbles and is tied for a team-best three interceptions. He also has four tackles for loss and 44 total takedowns.
Elliss is far from satisfied – “still got a lot to learn and a lot of areas to grow in,” he says. But he’s making the game-changing plays that he spent the offseason hyper-focused on with linebackers coach Eric Brown.
After last season Elliss approached Brown ready to challenge himself. He understood what it took to play the SAM linebacker position, a hybrid safety/linebacker role in UI’s system that fits his long, athletic frame perfectly. Next he wanted to learn the ins and outs of his teammates’ positions on defense.
“He takes so much pride in his work. He’s so detail-oriented,” Brown says. “He understands what every guy on the field is doing, not just himself. Last year I don’t know if he could have done that, but this year he’s gotten to a point where that’s where he’s at.”
This was something Luther Elliss had stressed to his son. He needed a full-orbed view of what was happening on the football field.
Elliss had been a quarterback (and occasional safety) at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake. So when he started his UI career in spring 2015 as a grayshirt, he was a blank slate.
“… That was probably a blessing in disguise because he had no bad habits,” the elder Elliss says. “He had nothing to really lean on except that, ‘Hey, I’m just an athlete and I’m just going to listen to what coach says and I’m just going to go do what he asks.’ ”
With pretty much everything to learn about being a linebacker, Elliss turned to his coaches and his dad. He still sometimes sends Luther clips of plays that he’s watching so they can go over them. Other times Brown has walked into the team’s video center to see the two rehashing every play from a game over Skype.
“He wants to be the best,” Luther says. “I love this attitude. I love his heart. He wants to make his teammates better.”
For Brown, reminders of how much Ellis has progressed come the Friday before game days. He and other defensive coaches at Idaho give their players a test to see how well they’ve mastered that week’s game plan and opponent.
“If you could see his tests, you’d understand why he’s such a good player,” Brown says.
Only three schools – Idaho State, Weber State and Idaho – offered Elliss a scholarship out of Judge Memorial. Why so little interest?
Some of it was his doing, he says. He desperately wanted to be a quarterback in college. (“I wasn’t very good. But at the time, that’s just what I wanted.”) And he told some coaches that he didn’t want to play defense at the next level.
But Ellis wasn’t very big, especially considering his dad was a 318-pound D-lineman for the Lions and Broncos. He was 6-3, 195 pounds his senior year – and that “195 was a skinny 195”, he says. “It was a basketball 195.”
Ellis also badly wanted to play at the University of Utah, where his dad developed into a first-round NFL pick in 1995 and his mom was a swimmer. But he’s OK that didn’t work out, either.
He trusted that God would put him in the right situation, and now? “I wouldn’t trade where I’m at for anywhere else. I’m thankful for what’s happened.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.