Idaho Vandals

Elliss growing up fast; can Idaho football’s defense follow?

Kaden Elliss
Kaden Elliss

After the Idaho football team went 4-8 last season, it was easy for the Vandals to play the “what if?” game.

What if they had two more wins to become bowl eligible?

What if they held on to three halftime leads that ended up being losses?

What if they didn’t let New Mexico State outscore them 34-15 in the second half one week, and South Alabama outscore them 45-21 in the second half the next week?

It was enough to drive players and coaches crazy. It’s also enough to serve as fuel for the Vandals as they prepare for their opener against Montana State on Thursday in the Kibbie Dome (7 p.m., KTVB).

“Starting with me, some of us were a little more immature last year,” sophomore linebacker Kaden Elliss said. “We gave up some huge leads in games we should have won. I feel like there was some let-up amongst the players, myself first off. That can’t happen … but we’ve been through it, we’ve learned from it.”

Linebackers coach Eric Brown appreciates Elliss’ attitude.

“Kaden takes a few of those games on himself, personally,” Brown said. “That’s a sign of a great player, too, when you can put it on your shoulders and say, ‘I’ve got to be better.’ Then the other guys who have been around awhile are saying the same thing, feeling the same way.”

And while Elliss — the son of NFL veteran Luther Elliss — expects a lot of himself, it’s easy to forget that he started the first game of last season as a true freshman.

“That first game, against Ohio, even in the midst of it and right after, it was just a blur,” said Elliss, who is listed as 6-foot-3, 218 pounds. “I can’t remember much of it. It’s not like I got a concussion or anything, it was just so fast. … When I watch film of that game, it’s just a blur. It’s like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

Even so, coaches don’t regret throwing Elliss into the fire.

“He’s a high-motor, really talented athlete,” Brown said. “It was hard to keep him off the field as a true freshman. He flew around and made a bunch of plays for us last year.”

Elliss finished second on the team in total tackles (83) and third in tackles for loss (7.5). The only players ahead of him in both categories were seniors.

“You saw it every game last year: Every game he got a little better and acted a little less like a freshman,” Brown said. “He’s a guy who puts the time in and cares about football and wants to get better, wants to improve. So, his football knowledge has gotten so much better. His knowledge of our defense has gotten so much better. I’m really excited to see what he does this year. … I think he’s going to make big strides.”

Of course, he expects the rest of the defense to do the same.

“We have to have a chip on our shoulder, no doubt,” Brown said. “We’ve got to feel like if we get stops we’re going to win, because our offense is going to put up a ton of points.

“And this is the best buzz around our defense since I’ve been here (Brown is entering his fourth season with Idaho). … There’s finally some depth at a lot of critical positions, and there’s a lot of good energy.”

Maybe that good energy will erase that bad taste from those tough losses last season.

“The experience sucks, but you’ve got to take it as a learning experience and make sure it never happens again,” Elliss said. “I think the leaders of our team will take care of that.”

Idaho vs. Montana State

  • All-time series: Idaho leads 24-17-1 (Idaho won last meeting 56-7 in Pullman, Wash., in 2000)
  • Last time in Kibbie Dome: Idaho won 27-13 on Oct. 15, 1994
  • Note: Teams played every season from 1965-95 in the Big Sky. Idaho will rejoin the Big Sky in 2018.