There was a distinct sense of surprise Monday among the New Orleans Saints’ social media following when the NFL team revealed its initial depth chart, and had Idaho’s Kaden Elliss slotted No. 1 at strongside linebacker.
It was a natural reaction. Elliss is 17 months removed from going in the seventh round of the draft out of a smaller school in the lower levels of Football Championship Subdivision college play. He’s 11 months and two weeks removed from a season-ending knee injury sustained in Week 2 of his rookie season.
Meanwhile, football enthusiasts on and around the Palouse probably were boasting, “called it.”
At UI, it was plain to see that Elliss was of NFL caliber, and perhaps the most pro-ready of all Big Sky competitors during his senior campaign as an edge-rusher in 2018.
Elliss’ placement as starting SAM — over 2020 third-round pick Zack Braun, from Wisconsin — isn’t yet official for Sunday’s opener, when the Saints host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But it’s a good indicator that the multifaceted former Vandal will be logging meaningful defensive reps on the big stage for a Super Bowl contender before most would expect, particularly for a late-rounder coming off his first major injury.
“First off, it lets you know you’re not invincible,” Elliss told New Orleans media members Friday of his injury suffered in punt coverage against Seattle on Sept. 25, 2019. “On that field, things can happen. You never know when your last snap is gonna be. So I think it really pushes me to take each snap, each opportunity, each day, make it a little more valuable in my mind, and just know that it’s not forever.”
Elliss spent his time off the field becoming absorbed in the defensive playbook and seeking out guidance from a corps of linebackers that includes journeyman Kiko Alonso, Alex Anzalone — a fourth-year veteran in the middle — and first-team All-Pro outside backer Demario Davis, a ninth-year pro and “one of the best in the league, if not the best in the league,” Elliss said.
“Last year was tough not being able to get the physical reps, but it was a great opportunity to sit back and watch and learn mentally ... to really hone in on different techniques and how guys (operate),” he added.
Now, Elliss says he feels more fit than ever as camp comes to a close. The NFL legacy seemingly has solidified himself in a playing role after a demanding offseason, during which he spent ample time grinding through an arduous regimen with the Saints’ training staff.
“Just the perseverance that it takes to come in here each day and work with these trainers, because they’re tough,” said Elliss, the son of former 10-year NFL defensive lineman Luther, now UI’s D-line coach. “... But it was for the best. I feel stronger than ever and I’m so thankful to them for that. It was a hard time, but it was a good time.”
According to various Twitter feeds of New Orleans media members, Elliss has been similarly impressive a year after turning heads in the 2019 preseason with his size (6-foot-3, 240 pounds), coupled with a chase-down motor, quick and coordinated feet, and advanced football instincts. He showed such during his two pro days — one at Idaho, one at Utah — when he registered a number of head-turning drill marks better than the average of NFL combine entrants’, and had a handful of teams hang around for extra time.
Elliss showed off his speed and ball skills in a highlight several reporters posted to Twitter on Aug. 26, when he burst from behind an intended receiver to jump a crossing route for a pick, then raced away from everyone to score.
“It was a good training camp. It was tough — there were tons of reps they had to try to make up for a lack of preseason games,” he said. “... Just a good time to be out there with the guys. I think I played well. I did everything I could. I played my heart out and enjoyed it. It’s such a blessing to be here with this organization, with these guys, and get to step out on that field each day.”
Elliss led New Orleans in preseason tackles last year as the Saints looked to expedite his development and tease out his most fitting position. When the regular season began, he was tabbed a starter on three of four special-teams units, and a reserve linebacker who could fill in wherever needed.
These days, it’s fair to assume No. 55 still will be seen on special teams — as was the case when he was starring at other positions as a Vandal. At this camp, aside from being employed at SAM, he’s also splitting time in the middle.
“I pride myself in being a versatile player, someone that can play multiple positions,” said Elliss, who at UI was utilized all around the field, lining up at every linebacker spot, on the defensive line, in the defensive backfield and as a sizable, sure-handed passing target at tight end. Elliss had 156 yards and two touchdowns on seven grabs as a junior. He deflected 14 passes and intercepted five (all in 2016) while at UI from 2015-18. In his final two seasons, he was mostly relied on to seal the edge and pressure quarterbacks, and the All-Big Sky first-teamer ended his career with 47 tackles for loss, fifth in program history.
“However the coaches feel they need to use me in this defense, however they feel I need to help this defense and this team, I’m ready to roll in whatever position,” Elliss said. “Different skill sets, obviously at each different position ... but overall I feel like you’ve gotta be a smart player and you’ve gotta just trust yourself and go make plays.”
In any case, people who follow UI and the Big Sky will be proud to brag they’ve trusted all along in Elliss to be a smart player and make plays alongside football’s elite, and for a postseason contender no less.
Elliss and wife Brooke (nee Reilly), a former UI basketball standout, had their first child in March, Luther Tuitele “Te” Elliss. Elliss, on becoming a father:
“Everybody always tells you you’re not going to be able to know until it happens, and man is that true? It’s such a blessing to become a dad.”
Former New Orleans linebackers coach Mike Nolan became Dallas’ defensive coordinator in January. The franchise promoted linebacking assistant Michael Hodges. In fact, it was Hodges who worked extra time, and had dinner, with Elliss after his pro day.
“I’ve known him more than anybody, longer than anybody with the Saints organization,” Elliss said. “But he’s so passionate. It’s really cool to see and really cool to not just see, but get to feel every day in the meetings, in the individuals, in each team period.”
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.