MOSCOW — For those well-versed with Idaho football — the locals, essentially — it’s not really a surprise.
They had an idea that Kaden Elliss was different.
It took a bit, but everyone else seems to be catching up.
Elliss, a standout outside linebacker/edge rusher and four-year starter for the Vandals, is appearing on just about every mock NFL draft board now, nearly a month after he logged numbers comparable to top-flight prospects in his two pro days — one at Utah, his home, and one at his alma mater.
“I was really happy with my drills,” Elliss said recently. “My faith’s growing more and more each day.”
It should be. Elliss’ 60-yard shuttle time was faster than all combine participants; his three-cone drill was the second best, and his 40 (4.59), 20-yard shuttle and vertical (34½ inches) marks rank above the averages for linebackers, defensive ends or tight ends (according to Ourlads.com), the three positions he played at UI, and might line up at professionally.
So far, he’s visited with the Seahawks, Ravens, Packers, Saints and Jaguars, among others. He’ll see if any call his name when the NFL draft begins today at 5 p.m. PDT.
And Elliss wasn’t even invited to the combine, or any all-star games. He was a dominant, first-team Big Sky defender, but garnered no national accolades.
“Like I told him, ‘Trust,’” said Elliss’ father, Luther, a former 10-year NFL defensive lineman and UI’s D-line coach. “He didn’t get invited to the combine, and was really disappointed in that. I said, ‘You know what? God has a plan and all you gotta do, is when you get your day ... just go out and perform and leave it at that.’”
The 6-3, 240-pounder did, swiping the spotlight from Utes — he was kept late by scouts — and impelling his name to trend somewhat on Twitter among gridiron fans and forecasters, with the lot of professionals theorizing that Elliss will be drafted on Day 3, somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds.
If so, he’d be the first Vandal since Korey Toomer in 2012 to be drafted.
FCS-focused publication HERO Sports, for instance, had rarely mentioned Elliss until recently, but this week projected that he’ll be selected by Seattle in the fifth round.
Other, wider-circulating outlets have taken heed too, including, but not limited to The Athletic and NFL Network, the latter of which said Elliss has a good “mixture of instincts, versatility and strength.”
“Elliss won’t be the first player on this list to get drafted but make no mistake, he will be drafted,” wrote longtime draft expert Rob Rang in his “diamonds in the rough” under-the-radar talent list on NFLDraftScout.com, where he ranked Elliss the No. 1 low-key linebacker.
Unlike Rang — who first took note of Elliss at UI’s pro day — and his sort, those who’ve watched the Vandals diligently over the past four years saw it coming.
They recognized Elliss’ next-level frame, genes and persistent defensive disruptions. And the splash of explosiveness he brought to his own offense.
They knew Elliss as the variously skilled, ever-bulking buck backer who was UI’s only consistent — i.e. each down — guy in the backfield in 2018. Elliss actually lined up at every linebacking spot throughout his Vandal career, which he ended with 278 tackles (47 for loss) and 17 sacks.
As a sophomore in 2016, he led all FBS linebackers with five interceptions, further demonstrating his versatility.
Yet most of all, he rushed like a bull, had an offensive-tackle-shaming cut — and the desired array of pass-rushing moves — was quick enough to run down mobile quarterbacks and read plays and reacted accordingly faster than any of his teammates.
When opponents’ kicking units took the field, he stayed put in hopes of getting his fingers on one.
They also knew him as a go-getter on offense, in the literal sense. In his junior season, Elliss made three striking, high-point grabs for chunk gainers, and nabbed a pair of touchdowns, but was too valuable on defense to play much both ways as a senior.
“It’s whatever (NFL teams) see me as,” Elliss said on where he’d prefer to play. “I love playing linebacker, outside, inside. I like playing tight end. Whatever you want me to do, I’m going to go do it.”
His repertoire culminated in one of his most ringing endorsements. In October, 29-year Montana State sports information director Bill Lamberty regarded Elliss as perhaps the best all-around Big Sky athlete he’d seen in “decades.”
But it wasn’t until Elliss flipped a sled and etched high-tier workout times that the hype train took off. Even before then, those privy to the Vandals had seen Elliss flourish against all foes in the Sun Belt and Big Sky.
NOTE — Many of the same publications lauding Elliss took note of David Ungerer’s pro day, too. Ungerer, UI’s leading receiver from the slot in ’18, might not be drafted, but many national outlets and reporters, including Rang, predict that he’ll be scooped up as an undrafted free agent. Ungerer’s 4.16-second 20-yard shuttle, 35½-inch vert and 6.86-second cone drill rank slightly above the combine average for wide receivers.