MOSCOW — Stay late after any Idaho football practice, and time and again, one of the last people to leave the Kibbie Dome turf is strongside linebacker Christian Elliss.
He runs lines, reps bag drills — rip-throughs and line get-offs — and makes the most of the post-practice coaching he’s sought out.
He made a promise to himself, founded on unwavering work ethic and, of course, family.
“I want to play in the league with my brother,” Elliss said recently, referring to New Orleans Saints seventh-round draft pick Kaden, a first-team All-Big Sky linebacker last year who had a similar routine.
Christian Elliss is following along step for step, made evident by his selection Tuesday to the Big Sky Conference’s first team.
Elliss, a junior, was one of two first-teamers for Idaho, which went 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky. He was one of nine total Vandals to be selected to the league’s all-conference team. Joining him on the first team is freshman Nick Romano as a kick returner.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Elliss — a third-teamer at middle linebacker in 2018 — was moved back outside during fall camp for comfortability. With injuries at the defensive end spots, he also took a load of snaps at buck linebacker, where Kaden played.
Elliss finished with 104 tackles, eighth in the Big Sky. He added 12½ for loss (sixth) and forced two turnovers. The sure run-stopper was a major factor in Idaho’s clear defensive improvement.
“Christian leads by just playing his tail off,” UI coach Paul Petrino said. “(He has) good football IQ and very good instincts.”
Romano earned Idaho Class 5A Player of the Year honors last year as an explosive running back at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian. This season, he totaled 513 rushing yards on 101 carries, and had five touchdowns from scrimmage. He logged 252 all-purpose yards in UI’s season-ending 60-53 overtime win Saturday against Northern Arizona.
But he was tabbed to the all-league team for his special-teams exploits. He led the conference at 27 yards per kick return, one of which went for 97 yards and a score in the waning seconds of UI’s loss to Weber State — it was the program’s first kick-return touchdown in seven years.
“Nick Romano’s gonna be something to watch in the future,” quarterback Mason Petrino said.
Perhaps the most disputed selection to the All-Big Sky list was senior receiver Jeff Cotton’s place on the second team.
Cotton, a two-year starter, led the country with 8.8 catches per game. He was second in the Football Championship Subdivision with 114.1 yards per outing, and was second in the league with 1,141 yards, surpassing the 1,000-yard preseason objective he set. UI’s first 1,000-yard receiver in five years totaled seven touchdowns.
Cotton missed two full games, and one full half of two others.
Against NAU, he broke Jerry Hendren’s 50-year-old single-game program record, recording 18 catches — for 230 yards and two scores.
Cotton, a juco product out of Pima CC (Ariz.), said he was unsure if he’d be playing Division I football; a late graduation from community college set him back. Now, he’s had scouts looking at him weekly because defensive backs couldn’t keep up.
“He’s a guy you love to root for because he does everything right ... he’s one of the hardest workers there is at practice and in the weight room,” Paul Petrino said. “I believe 120,000 percent he’ll go get to keep playing some football.”
Said Cotton after NAU, reflecting on his time at UI: "It's meant everything. Before I got here, it was rough. I didn't know if I was gonna be playing football, then just finding a home ... I just love it here."
Along the same line of Petrino's thinking, four-year starting strong guard Noah Johnson made his way onto the second team, his third year earning league plaudits — he was a first-teamer last year. Scouts also have been watching Johnson throughout the year thanks to his bulldozing nature as a run-blocker, ability to absorb approaching defensive tackles, and his durability (he started 45 of 48 games in his career).
Middle linebacker Tre Walker, a sophomore, landed on the second team. He was second in the league with 138 tackles — sixth in program history — and had more solo tackles than anyone in the Big Sky (74). His 11½ tackles per game is fourth in the FCS. He added nine TFLs. Petrino called him the defensive catalyst.
“Just working hard and getting bigger, stronger and faster,” Petrino said of Walker and a trend among those in UI’s recent history of recruiting standout linebackers.
"It's Tre. Tre's the leader. Tre leads vocally and by example."
Slippery sophomore receiver Cutrell Haywood was named second-team punt returner after logging 9.1 yards per return with a long of 24. Offensively, he procured 570 yards and six scores as UI’s No. 2 target.
Hard-working senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower earned his first league honors, landing on the third team. The seldom-tested field corner and fervent fisherman broke up eight passes and had a hand in five turnovers. He scored two defensive touchdowns in an Oct. 19 win against Idaho State.
"The strides he made from last year to this year," Petrino said. "Man, so proud of him.
"He's the strongest kid on our team pound for pound, so that shows you how hard he works in the weight room and in the offseason."
Punter Cade Coffey, who averaged 42.8 yards per punt, earned an honorable-mention nod. His 73-yard punt against Sacramento State was the second longest in the league.
Mason Petrino also was selected honorable mention. He went for 2,244 yards passing, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and ran for three scores this season.
He tied a program record with six passing touchdowns against NAU — and ran for another — and accrued 563 yards of total offense, the No. 2 mark in UI history. Petrino finished his career with a 62.3-percent completion rate, the best in program history.
“Now, he’ll go on to just having more headaches like we do as coaches,” Paul Petrino said, chuckling.
TOP LEAGUE HONORS — Sacramento State quarterback Kevin Thomson was named offensive MVP; Montana linebacker Dante Olson and Weber State defensive end Jonah Williams were co-defensive MVPs.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.