Four players from area schools will take the brightest stage in football in less than two weeks, three from Washington State and one from Idaho.
One former WSU standout is playing key minutes for the AFC’s Kansas City Chiefs. Two other former Cougars are serving in primary backup roles for the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles. The lone Vandals standout is making an impact in Philadelphia’s special teams unit.
An area grad or three will take home a Super Bowl ring on Feb. 12, after the Big Game wraps up in Glendale, Arizona.
Cornerback Jaylen Watson, who starred for the Cougars in 2020-21, has become a regular contributor for the Chiefs in his rookie season. An eight-game starter this year, Watson has accumulated 58 tackles, three interceptions and 10 pass breakups across 18 appearances.
Quarterback Gardner Minshew, who led WSU to one of its most memorable campaigns in program history in 2018, is the Eagles’ No. 2 QB behind MVP contender Jalen Hurts. Offensive tackle Andre Dillard, a three-time All-Pac-12 honoree who earned All-America honors as a senior at WSU in 2018, is Philadelphia’s second-string option at left tackle and left guard.
Linebacker Christian Elliss went undrafted out of Idaho in 2021, bouncing from practice squads in Minnesota, Philadelphia and San Francisco, before returning to the Eagles. He was elevated from Philadelphia’s practice squad this season and serves as a backup linebacker and special teams player.
Watson has been at his best during the playoffs. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder started and recorded interceptions in both of Kansas City’s postseason wins.
He hauled in a highlight-reel, one-handed pick midway through the fourth quarter to seal the Chiefs’ win over Jacksonville on Jan. 21 in the divisional round. Watson picked off Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow in the second quarter of Sunday’s AFC championship game. He added a touchdown-saving pass deflection just before halftime, helping the Chiefs squeeze past the Bengals 23-20.
A seventh-round selection in last year’s draft, Watson introduced himself to the NFL world in a Week 2 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, recording a goal-line interception in the fourth quarter and returning the pick 99 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Watson played in 15 games, recording 44 tackles, two interceptions, seven pass deflections and five fumble recoveries during his Cougars career. He was twice named to the All-Pac-12 honorable mention team.
The Augusta, Georgia, native was awarded juco All-American honors while playing for Ventura College in California (2017-18). He signed with USC in 2019, but academic issues prevented his enrollment. He took a season off from football and spent the year working at a fast-food chain, then made his bounce-back in Pullman. Watson claimed a starting job for the Cougars right away and flashed signs of pro potential during the four-game 2020 campaign before becoming a team captain and lockdown corner in 2021.
Minshew, a fourth-year pro in his second year with the Eagles, made two starts late in the season in place of the injured Hurts. Minshew passed for 663 yards and three touchdowns against three interceptions on a 58% completion rate in the two losses.
The Eagles, the top seed in the NFC, rolled to a blowout win over the New York Giants on Jan. 21 in the divisional round and stomped San Francisco 31-7 Sunday in the NFC title game . Minshew entered the lineup late against the 49ers and took two kneel-downs to end the game.
The Mississippi native made stops at Northwest Mississippi Community College and East Carolina before transferring to WSU. “Minshew Mania” took off in Pullman.
Minshew finished fifth in Heisman voting in 2018, won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and captured Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors after leading the country with 367.6 passing yards per game. He set several program records and ranked among the top five nationally in touchdown passes (38) and completion percentage (70.7%), leading the Cougs to an 11-2 season.
Taken by Jacksonville in the sixth round of the 2019 draft, Minshew started 20 games for the Jaguars over his first two NFL seasons, passing for 5,530 yards and 37 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He was traded to Philadelphia ahead of the 2021 season and has started four games for the Eagles.
Dillard, from Woodinville, Washington, anchored WSU’s offensive line in 2016-18 and was selected by the Eagles with the 22nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. He started four games as a rookie and was expected to take over the starting job at left tackle the following year, but sustained an injury that kept him out for the 2020 season. Dillard has been a role player for the Eagles over the past two seasons.
Dillard played 13 snaps Sunday at left guard in place of starter Landon Dickerson, who sustained an injury late in the game. If Dickerson isn’t ready to return in two weeks, Dillard might be called upon to start in the Super Bowl.
With three players suiting up, WSU will have more representatives at the Super Bowl than any of its Pac-12 counterparts.
Eight other Cougars were on NFL rosters this season. Three of them held down starting roles throughout the year – rookie right tackle Abraham Lucas (Seattle Seahawks), fourth-year safety Jalen Thompson (Arizona Cardinals) and fifth-year linebacker Frankie Luvu (Carolina Panthers).
Idaho’s Elliss, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, has 11 tackles this season. He and his brother Kaden Elliss, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, who had a career-high 78 tackles this season, are two of the four Vandals players in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Cotton and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Jesse Davis are both backups.
The Spokesman-Review’s Taylor Newquist contributed to this report.