With less than a season of experience on the Vandals defense between them, Kaden Elliss and Khalin Smith have emerged as playmakers.
The linebackers — the true freshman Elliss on the outside and junior college transfer Smith at the hybrid end/linebacker spot — have taken big steps during Idaho’s two-game winning streak.
“A guy that everyone around here is going to know his name for many years to come is Kaden Ellis,” coach Paul Petrino said in March, before Ellis even played a game.
On Smith, who switched from tight end before an Oct. 17 win at Troy, Petrino said, “Oh gosh, it’s awesome — you’ve just got to love Khalin.”
The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Elliss had nine tackles, three for loss, in last week’s victory over Louisiana-Monroe. He is third on the team with 37 tackles, including 26 in the past four games.
“My first game, I was all tense, trying to be focused, getting my mentality right. ... But I think having your mentality right is having fun, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Elliss said.
Elliss’ parents, Rebecca and Luther, were a swimmer and football player, respectively, at Utah. Luther Elliss played 10 NFL seasons as a defensive end, playing in two Pro Bowls for Detroit. Perhaps it’s genetics, or being chased around as the eldest in a family of 11 children (five biological, six adopted) that has made Elliss a gifted athlete.
“He just has a great feel for the game. He can bend, and he can change directions, he can accelerate,’’ Petrino said. “The sky’s the limit for Kaden.’’
Smith’s rise, though it took later to begin, has been sharp. He’s made seven tackles in his two games on defense, including four and a pass breakup against Louisiana-Monroe. Petrino said Smith has taken part in Sunday practices, normally reserved for younger players, because he wants to get in as many snaps as he can.
“He just wants to improve. He loves football and I think he’s just going to get better and better and better. He’s really helped us over there,” Petrino said.
A 6-foot-5, 245-pounder who signed in February out of Bakersfield (Calif.) College, Smith didn’t make a catch, but was “hitting anything that moved” on special teams, which caught Petrino’s eye.
“I kind of went to them (about changing positions). I’m not a guy that likes to lose, and I wanted to contribute to the team,” Smith said. “I feel good, still feel like I can get better. I’m loving it.”
Both players will get a chance to make plays with a solid test from New Mexico State sophomore running back Larry Rose III, who is 14th nationally with 871 rushing yards.
Elliss and Smith are just the spark the defense needed — it has allowed 29 total points during its two-game winning streak. In Petrino’s previous 28 games, Idaho allowed fewer than 29 points in only three games.
“From the beginning of the season to now, our defense has evolved,’’ Elliss said. “It’s looking a lot better.’’
Idaho at New Mexico State
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Aggie Memorial Stadium (30,434; synthetic turf), Las Cruces, N.M.
Radio: KFXD (630 AM)
Records: Idaho is 3-4 overall, 2-2 in Sun Belt; New Mexico State is 0-7, 0-3 (lost 52-7 at home against Troy on Saturday)
Series: Idaho leads 15-6 (Vandals won in Moscow 29-17 on Oct. 18, 2014 in last meeting)
Vegas line: Idaho by 7