Almost 27 years after Utah legend Luther Elliss was chasing down great running backs like Marshall Faulk in the Western Athletic Conference in 1993, another Elliss will don the Utes uniform.
Moscow High School football star Jonah Elliss announced his commitment to the Pac-12 program and his father’s alma mater on social media last week. He’ll become the first in a big family of football prodigies to head to Salt Lake City since Luther’s All-American campaign there in the ’90s.
“It’s really reassuring just knowing the fact that I got my spot solidified, you know, in the program,” Jonah Elliss said after a Bears practice this week. “A lot of the stress with the recruiting process was calling the other coaches and telling them I’m going somewhere else.
“I think that’s why I was so hesitant because I’m not much of a guy to want to let people down, so that was kind of tough.”
A 6-foot-2, 210 pound linebacker and tight end, Elliss’ recruiting process consisted of Zoom chats and phone calls rather than official visits and in-person talks with coaches, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no let-up in sight, he felt it was time to make a decision.
Elliss had offers from more than half a dozen Division I programs, including Louisville, the first to extend an offer; Air Force; Army; Boise State; Washington State and Idaho, where Luther Elliss serves as the defensive line coach.
Jonah said there was no pressure from his dad to join Utah. Initially, he was actually opposed to the idea.
“Early on in our conversation, he didn’t want to go to Utah,” Moscow coach Phil Helbling said. “I think for a lot of reasons and I think the biggest one early on was following in the legacy of your father, and I think that maybe weighed a little bit on him.
“But after the recruiting process and the coaches and the fit … he just thought it felt right, and started to embrace wanting to follow in pop’s footsteps.”
There are other positives too, like being closer to family in the area, and Luther’s connection to the coaching staff. Utah coach Kyle Wittingham — the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 — was the defensive line coach with the Utes in 1994 when Luther was a player.
“Any time you get one of your children going back to your alma mater, I think it’s a big deal for any family,” said Luther, also a 10-year NFL veteran with the Lions and Broncos. “I think that’s a huge blessing.”
It also helps that Jonah has three older brothers to look up to in the football world. Kaden is a former Idaho Vandal entering his second NFL season with the New Orleans Saints. And Christian and Noah are established standouts still playing with the Vandals, entering their senior and junior years, respectively. Christian is coming off an All-Big Sky first-team season n 2019. Noah, a former four-star recruit, plays defensive tackle.
“That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for is just that I grew up with football,” Jonah said. “My brothers set an amazing path for me. My dad made it big in the league and still they kind of went unnoticed in the recruiting process ... And then they went to Idaho and made their name.”
All four, plus younger brothers Micah and Elijah, can sometimes be seen training and practicing together around Moscow in the offseason.
Luther said the Elliss bunch would sometimes draw concern from onlookers worried about social distancing, not knowing it was actually one big football family.
“You’d see all these big guys and it looks like a team out there, running around and doing different agilities and working out,” Luther said. “When they come back in, they’re talking a little smack with each other. If someone beat someone or topped someone in something, they make sure everyone in the family knew.”
It’s that atmosphere that has helped Jonah grow as a player in his three seasons with the Bears. Since 2017, he’s gone from a gangly freshman to the top-ranked recruit in Idaho. The recruiting site 247Sports.com rates him as a three-star prospect.
For the Bears, Jonah has established himself as a do-it-all, two-way player. On offense, he’s often seen leaping above defensive backs in traffic for big catches. One such grab was a 26-yarder in double coverage against Pullman in a 27-21 Border Battle win in 2019.
On defense, he can drop back in coverage or use his speed to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Helbling said his versatility will be a key factor for the Bears this year, if Idaho continues with plans of a fall football season. Moscow is scheduled to open Aug. 28 against Grangeville at Bear Field.
“He gives us the ability to create a bunch of matchup nightmares,” Helbling said. “You could put him anywhere.”
And Jonah’s goals? He doesn’t just want to be another good football player — he wants to be the best.
“He’s said it since I’ve gotten to know him: He wants to be the best Elliss,” Helbling said. “And there’s a lot of good Ellisses.”
Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com, by phone at (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter @StephanSports.