Some never fight; some were squabbling during their interviews. Some shared positions since the start; some look like polar opposites. Two came to Idaho from its old-school rival; two chose the Vandals over Ivy League programs.
All are distinct, but all are family, and not just in the team sense, where every member is thought of as kin. In fact, many of the aforementioned are only in Moscow because of their actual siblings.
Idaho’s football roster boasts six sets of brothers, tied for the second-most all time (on record) in NCAA football.
They are the Johnsons, the Ellisses, the Rufais, the Noils, the Lees and the Hattens. Those numbers practically are unheard of.
But for anyone familiar with the way the family-oriented Vandals do things, it’s not a surprise. Common surnames are known to crop up, especially recently, with Paul Petrino at the helm. He listens to his recruits, who often have addressed their younger brothers’ talents. Those blood-ties prove fruitful.
“It says a lot about our campus and community,” Petrino said. “When an older brother comes here, the younger brother wants to come too. When that happens, it means they’re enjoying it here, enjoying the people and being treated right.”
The oldest of the lot is senior All-American strong guard Noah Johnson. His younger brother, Coleman, is a freshman defensive end who rotates with the first unit. The two are tight; they’re roommates and video-game rivals.
Only once, “when Coleman was getting a lot bigger,” was there any hostility. Noah said something snarky, got a whack for it, then put Coleman in a headlock.
“It was only that one time, and it was for like five seconds,” Coleman said.
But it didn’t take any shoving to get Coleman to the Palouse. Noah said he wanted his little brother to “have his own college experience,” one not only predicated on Noah being a star there.
Even so, Coleman’s first college offer came from UI in 2017. After a nervous call to Petrino, the Johnsons were set to suit up with each other for the first time since the two won a state championship with Fayetteville (Ark.) High School in 2015.
“You walk around the locker room, and they’re truly my other brothers,” said Noah, who Petrino spotted while with the Razorbacks in 2012. “Now I have my actual brother here? It speaks to the culture.”
One of the other pairs claimed four state titles.
The Ellisses — the 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior linebacker Christian and 6-4, 347-pound sophomore defensive tackle Noah — are two of 12 in the Elliss clan. Their UI background isn’t incredibly traditional, but it runs deep.
Their older brother, Kaden, was a four-year Vandals starter, and now plays for the New Orleans Saints. Their father, Luther, is UI’s D-line coach and a former NFL standout.
As of now, these Ellisses are standing out in the Big Sky Conference.
In the past, they helped Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City to two state titles, then did the same at Valor Christian (Colo.), when their father took a chaplain job with the Denver Broncos.
“We were honored to win four titles in a row, and just being with (Christian) and Kaden, definitely special,” Noah said.
Chipped in Christian: “Especially after our senior year, that was the most emotional, ’cause at the time I thought (Noah) was going to Mississippi State and I … was still figuring it out. (After committing to UI), Kaden and I always wanted (Noah) to come. Like, ‘c’mon, Noah, let’s all three play again.’ ”
Good news came before this year, when Noah hopped over to Idaho and gained eligibility. Now they can play their Dungeons and Dragons — a newfound devotion — with full hearts.
Of course, they wouldn’t be Ellisses unless there was some sort of “big-play” meter during games.
“I said I’ll have more than him,” Christian said with a laugh.
Said Noah, attempting to stay stoic but grinning a little: “The film will speak for itself.”
Also defenders and lifetime teammates are the Boise State transfers, the Rufais: junior defensive end Kayode and freshman safety Mujeeb.
Their Nigerian roots prompted an early attachment to soccer — the Purple Crush youth teams.
Mujeeb, who was on a younger team, pushed himself. His “whole goal was to just play with (Kayode).”
“My memory’s always been: You have the most fun when you’re on a team with your brother,” Mujeeb said.
Down the road, that was a prevalent factor. Naturally, their mom loved the single-team idea too.
During high school at Lincoln in Portland, the two thrived off their relationship on the basketball team, Mujeeb calling it “the most pure form of joy.” The younger Rufai finished his prep career at Madison High School. His former teammate, Mike Noil, was key in nudging him toward the Vandals, who showed financial commitment.
Before, Mujeeb went to BSU to join his brother, who’d been there a couple of years. Mujeeb had to work himself from walk-on to roster-status, becoming the Broncos’ 2018 Scout Player of the Year in the process.
His “contingency plan” was to drop down if it didn’t work out, and one of Kayode’s driving factors to transfer was his close-knit bond with his brother. The two can be heard improvising, rhyming the last word in one another’s sentences.
Idaho’s staff got it; it’s all about family.
“It’s a cognitive dissonance in a sense. You’re brought up on codes, you’re not growing up in an affluent family. All you have is each other,” Kayode said. “He came to college with me. Every college student has adversity, but we battled those together.
“It was a life decision. I asked myself, ‘Can I live the next couple years knowing I turned down the opportunity to play with my brother?’ ”
It was the same for the Noil brothers, sophomore corner Wyryor and sophomore receiver Mike, whose harrowing past oddly led to their playing together at UI.
At ages 6 and 5, respectively, Hurricane Katrina forced their family to evacuate New Orleans. They bounced between family in Mississippi and Louisiana before landing with an older brother in Portland.
“We were always close, but when (Katrina) happened, man, it brought the whole family closer together,” Wyryor said.
At Madison in Portland, Wyryor became a quarterback; Mike was a receiver. In one instance, Mike trailed Wyryor on a run. As Wyryor was being tackled, he pitched it back to Mike, who did the rest.
“So many highlights,” Mike said, grinning.
The two don’t often line up across at practice, but since they’re so familiar with each’s style, they “point out how to do better.”
“Our pops always preached that — don’t go at your brother on the field, help him off the field and dominate together,” Wyryor said.
Wyryor, being recruited first, asked Petrino to check out Mike. It wasn’t long before “Speedy” had an offer.
Lining up beside one another at receiver and sporting the same jewelry are the Lees, redshirt sophomore DJ and freshman Bryson. The funny thing is, they were both standout dual-threat quarterbacks at St. Thomas More High School in Champaign, Ill.
“We had identical stats,” Bryson said. “Maybe one touchdown difference (30 to 29 in Bryson’s favor).”
While prepping together, admittedly, DJ didn’t throw much toward Bryson, then a receiver.
And DJ didn’t get a whole lot of pass-catching reps until UI called. He had quarterback offers on the table, and one from Louisville as an athlete, but was intrigued with being a receiver. Strangely, he got on “SportsCenter” earlier this season because of a pass.
“Of course, he switches to receiver and it’s his first time throwing the ball since he’s been here, and he makes ‘SportsCenter,’” said Bryson, who’d been steered to a summer camp, where he promptly was offered.
On the other end of that play? Freshman tight end Hayden Hatten. He and his linebacker brother, Hogan, are twins from Scottsdale, Ariz.
Both had numerous Ivy League offers, but besides Brown, they were “offers the other didn’t have,” Hayden said. Basically, “we were a duo package the whole time.”
“Our parents said, ‘Go anywhere in the country. We just want you together,’” Hayden said.
That’s the plan after school too. They’re both business majors, and intend to split their family’s Jostens company.
The former three-year Saguaro High School starters “never fight, ever,” Hogan noted, save when playing the EA Sports Madden football videogame. They’re equally humor-filled and equally sharp, curbing that “jock stereotype,” Hayden said.
As is the Vandals’ aim, they play for one another. When Hayden made an improbable one-handed grab against Wyoming, who was the first one UI players hyped up on the sideline? Hogan, although, he probably holds some disdain. In last year’s state title game, Hayden stole a trick-play highlight.
“It was supposed to go to me, but then selfish Hayden instead just dives into the end zone,” Hogan ribbed.
But as each of UI’s six sets of brothers reiterated, “It’s all love.”
Colton Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.