Life could be worse for linebacker Kaden Elliss, one of Idaho football’s brightest-ever stars and an NFL legacy.
Elliss, a seventh-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2019, resides comfortably about 20 minutes outside the Big Easy’s downtown. On March 11, he and his wife, Brooke (née Reilly) – a former Vandals basketball forward – welcomed a baby boy, Tuitele “Te” Elliss.
“Everyone always tells you that you’ll never know, then he comes, and they were right,” Elliss said recently by phone. “It’s such a special time, and I get to see him grow every day.”
Te’s father has a lot to be optimistic about. He’s on a good pace to recover from an ACL injury sustained early last season, and he’s locked in with the Saints, who were pleasantly surprised when they first observed Elliss’ blend of athleticism, strength and versatility that only Idaho, Big Sky and Sun Belt enthusiasts had been familiar with.
New Orleans got a steal in the draft with the 244th selection; that’s an understatement. At his pro day a year ago, scouts were wowed when Elliss flipped blocking sleds and carded numbers on par with NFL combine marks, sometimes better – his time in the 60-yard shuttle bested every combine participant’s, and his three-cone drill would’ve been No. 2 overall.
“There’s a lot of talented kids out there that have the ability to play at the next level, but they might not have the mindset. … One reason I thought Kaden had a shot is because he’d stay after (practice) and work on what we, as coaches, thought he should,” said Elliss’ father, Luther, an Idaho assistant and 10-year NFL defensive tackle who spent most of his time with Detroit. “Talent alone won’t help you stay in the NFL. It has to come from somewhere deeper.”
For Kaden Elliss, it’s faith – in himself and on a higher plane.
Despite his season-ending injury suffered in punt coverage at Seattle in Week 3, he trusts things will get a whole lot better before they get worse.
He remembers the moment he realized he’d been hurt, and the calm he felt after looking at his wrist tape, which had “Jeremiah 29:11” scribbled on it in black marker. The verse reads: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“It was the most comforting thing,” Elliss said. “It’s guided me through it, and I think (the injury) is something that’s going to benefit my career, make me better in the long run.
“The trainers even said, ‘You’ve never had a major injury? This is gonna be good for you.’ Like they say, pressure can crush a rock or make a diamond.”
On April 27, 2019, Elliss was “mobbed by my 11 younger siblings” – including current Vandal defenders Noah and Christian, an all-league linebacker – upon becoming the first UI player drafted since Korey Toomer in 2012. He impressed immediately in camp, then became a hidden gem in New Orleans’ preseason.
The Salt Lake City product was one of the Saints’ three most-played defenders. He often was employed as a reserve linebacker but often lined up as a preseason first-teamer in the middle of head coach Sean Payton’s 3-4 base defense – partly because of injuries at the position – and started on three of four special teams units.
Among prognosticators, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder who moves like a skill player was a sure-fire bet to make New Orleans’ 53-man roster by the midway point of the preseason. He’d also become something of a fan favorite for his work ethic, cordiality and a well-circulated Twitter video in which he listed a dozen positions he’d played at UI – every linebacker spot, defensive end and tight end being the most notable.
“Pre-draft, they loved my versatility on film and how I played all over the place at Idaho, but they did say, ‘We wish you would’ve played one thing a little more so we’d know where you fit,’” said Elliss, laughing. Aside from his all-conference accolades as a bulldozing, play-deciphering Buck linebacker, Elliss made a number of highlight-reel catches down the seams, a couple heavily contested and one-handed.
New Orleans already had been known to take flexible Idahoans. Backup quarterback Taysom Hill of Pocatello has been famously used on special teams and as a running back and pass-catcher.
The Saints decided Elliss would be most effective in the middle, with a little rotation to the outside. It meant a learning curve, considering he’d spent most of his final two seasons at UI as an edge rusher – the four-year starter ended his Vandal career with the most tackles for loss (47) in the program in 18 years and fifth-most all-time.
“I went right into the film room when I got drafted and ran over it,” he said. “How you see the offense is a lot different (at middle linebacker). You have a lot more space, you use your peripherals and read keys in front of you. I loved the edge, getting a pass rush. But at Mike, you’re in on every play.
“That makes it fun. I get to fly around.”
Elliss led the Saints with 23 total tackles in the preseason. His first of his regular-season career, on Sept. 15 against the Rams, prevented a probable Los Angeles touchdown. He appeared in 60% of the Saints’ special-teams snaps in three regular-season games.
“At that point, it’s moving, going fast. Everyone’s got their chips on the table, it’s go time,” said Elliss, who will work with first-year linebackers coach Michael Hodges this season. “The coaches did a really good job getting us ready and chose the right rookies. (I was) just out there having fun.”
While injured, Elliss was determined to improve his knowledge of the game, devouring film and taking pointers from a corps of veteran linebackers including A.J. Klein, Kiko Alonso and All-Pro Demario Davis, who helped New Orleans to a 13-3 record and a playoff appearance.
“Everyone gives away hints as to what the play is. … The biggest jump was probably how smart the vets are,” he said. “I’m super thankful for them. They taught me so much to emulate my game on.
“I was happy to be able to come in, still use my quickness and strength to my advantage, and to get to learn from an awesome linebacker group. They got me ready through camp, showed me the best you can do is yell, have fun. You might make a few mistakes but bounce back and keep at it.”
Along the way he’s grown fond of the hospitable Louisiana culture and received “tidbits of wisdom” from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and standout defensive end Cameron Jordan – who’ll “just talk to you about anything” – among others. He’s also done some reminiscing about Idaho with former Vandal players Joel Thomas (1993-97) and Curtis Johnson (1981-84), the Saints’ running backs and receivers coaches, respectively.
Elliss is one of only five former UI players in the NFL. But he’s not starstruck. Of course, his father has been a resource, instructing him to “be confident in yourself, don’t change who you are and most importantly, trust in the Lord through it.” Down the road, he’ll probably tell his younger brothers – and perhaps his son – something similar.
So it could be worse for Elliss, who’s had faith he would reach football’s peak since he concluded his days as a triple-option quarterback at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and began a college stint under Paul Petrino defined by “Vandal toughness,” continuous physical growth and after-hours self-improvement.
“Freshman year at Idaho, I knew I had a chance,” he said.
“The focus is on football and family every day now. Faith, family, football – that’s all there needs to be.”
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