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‘It’s a huge blessing’: New Utah D-line coach Luther Elliss glad to be back at his alma mater

Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham hired Elliss in mid-January as the Utes’ new defensive tackles coach, replacing Sione Po’uha, who retired

SHARE ‘It’s a huge blessing’: New Utah D-line coach Luther Elliss glad to be back at his alma mater
Denver Broncos chaplain Luther Elliss chips in during rookie camp football practice Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Englewood, Colo.

Denver Broncos chaplain Luther Elliss chips in during rookie camp Saturday, May 7, 2016, at the team’s headquarters in Englewood, Colo. The former Utes great has returned to Salt Lake City as Utah’s new defensive tackles coach.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

In the early 1990s, Utah defensive tackle Luther Elliss terrorized opposing offenses. 

Elliss helped establish a tradition at the U. for standout defensive line play. 

Some 30 years later, he’s returned to his alma mater to develop another generation of defensive linemen. Kyle Whittinghamhired Elliss in mid-January as Utah’s new defensive tackles coach, replacing Sione Po’uha, who retired. 

Elliss spent the last five seasons at the University of Idaho as the defensive line coach. In 2021, his unit ranked 16th in the FCS in sacks per game (2.82), and two Vandals defensive linemen received All-Big Sky honors.

On Tuesday, Ellis was on the practice field as the Utes opened spring drills.

“A dream come true, it is,” Elliss said. “It’s something that, to be able to be back at my alma mater, coaching, and also I get to be around my son and coach him a little bit. It’s a huge blessing. I’m grateful for it. … It’s excitement. It’s like being a kid in a candy store. … And it’s appreciation to be here and back with coach Whitt, my position coach my senior year. His dad was my (defensive coordinator). A lot of connections here. It’s been really good.”

Elliss’ son, Jonah, a defensive end, played in 14 games and recorded 15 tackles, a sack and had two fumble recoveries as a freshman for the Utes last season. 

Elliss has inherited a solid group of defensive tackles, including Devin Kaufusi and 2021 Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Junior Tafuna.

“There’s no ceiling with him. He has unbelievable talent. He does some things that some other guys really can’t,” Elliss said of Tafuna. “He’s that explosive and that talented. He has a high ceiling, if there is a ceiling. I think he’s going to be even better than he was last year.”

Overall, he likes what he has to work with at the defensive tackle position. 

“Guys are getting better and taking to the coaching, understanding what we want to get out of them,” Elliss said. “It’s a good group of young guys that want to get better. Anytime you have a group like that, you should get better every day. … They have a desire to be great.”

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Utah’s Luther Elliss sacks Arizona quarterback Dan White.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Elliss was impressed with what the Utes accomplished last season, when they won their first Pac-12 championship and played in the Rose Bowl for the first time.

“Look at how young we were, not only as a defense, but as a team, and look at what they accomplished with all the adversity they went through, the highs and lows,” he said. “To see that transpired the way it did, it starts at the top with coach Whitt, that leadership. And it trickles down and then everybody believing and buying into say, ‘Hey, we can do something special.’ They were.”

After his career at Utah, Elliss was picked in the first round, No. 20 overall, of the 1995 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He played for the Lions from 1995 to 2003 and he recorded 324 tackles and 27 sacks before finishing his pro career with the Denver Broncos in 2004. Ellis was a Pro Bowl selection in 1999 and 2000.  

Elliss brings that pro experience to his defensive tackles room and he wants to instill a pro mentality. 

“It’s a mindset, how you approach the day. Not wasting a day. Not wasting a rep. Not wasting a meeting. We all have things happening outside of football, outside of this facility,” he said. “But when you get here, you’ve got to compartmentalize and set things aside and say I’m going to focus (on football) here.

“ … I’m not saying we separate that completely in the sense that we don’t help these guys with different issues. But when you get here, you’ve got to separate personal and business. This is business. You’ve got to come in here and be ready to go.”

Elliss said as a coach, he tries to build up his players and hold them accountable.  

“My coaching style is, I’m going to love you, I’m going to push you, I’m going to demand the best from you and hopefully I’m going to teach and train you how to be a professional,” he said.

Now that he’s back at Utah, what does Elliss hope to see from his group this spring?

“What I hope to accomplish is for them to be the best they possibly can be, better than they were last year,” he said. “So when guys reflect back at the end of the season, or even after the spring, they can say, ‘I’m a better player than I was before spring.’ Then continuing to build on that. I’m a big technique and fundamentals guy. To me, it all starts there.”