As a kid growing up in Provo, Utah defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi’s dad, Steve, regaled him with stories about the legendary play of former Utes star Luther Elliss.
Steve Kaufusi played a role in Elliss’ career taking off. In 1994, when Ellis was a senior, Steve was hired as a graduate assistant on Utah’s defensive staff. Steve was later elevated to defensive line coach, where he spent 1995-01 with the Utes before being hired by BYU. He was the Cougars’ defensive line coach from 2002-16.
During his time with the Utes from 1991 to 1994, Elliss was named consensus All-American and earned Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1994. He was taken No. 20 overall in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft.
Elliss starred for the Detroit Lions for nine seasons and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1999 and 2000.
Now, nearly 30 years later, it’s come full circle.
In January, coach Kyle Whittingham hired Elliss as Utah’s defensive tackles coach — and, as it turns out, Devin Kaufusi is one those playing for him.
“As a football junkie from a football family, I’ve been hearing coach Elliss’ name, Luther Elliss, for a long time, since I was little,” Devin said. “When my dad started his coaching career here at Utah, he’d say, ‘Luther really made me look good. I was lucky to have Luther.’
“To this day, my dad, of all the defensive linemen he’s coached, he says Luther is heads above every guy when it comes to how he plays. For me, to hear about that legend all growing up and now I’m in the room with him, it’s been absolutely fantastic.”
That the man that his father coached is now coaching him is almost like a movie.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Devin said. “It’s so weird. Who’s writing this?”
And he absolutely loves playing for Elliss.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s thrilling. The way he dissects the game and sees the game so differently with all the experience that he has, he’s really come in and hasn’t let us rest. I’m the old guy in the room, but there are a lot of young guys. He has his bar and his vision set high for us. He knows what we can get out of ourselves. He’s doing everything he can to get us there. So it’s been fantastic having Luther back here and learning from him.”
Meanwhile, Kaufusi has been authoring his own compelling story.
He followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Bronson and Corbin, by signing with BYU and played in 25 games for the Cougars from 2018-19 before transferring to Utah.
After two seasons with the Utes, Kaufusi was elected as a team captain heading into the 2022 campaign.
“This year, being voted captain was huge. It’s something that I think about every day. It’s more of a conscious effort,” said the 6-foot-7, 288-pound senior. “Coming in as a transfer, that was my biggest thing. I just wanted to earn the respect of my teammates. That’s the process here. That’s the family atmosphere and brotherhood that we have. I wanted to work hard enough that I could earn the respect of my teammates.”
Prior to this season, Kaufusi was already on the team’s leadership council.
“That was such a huge blessing and accomplishment for me. Then to become a defensive captain, after Mika (Tafua) and Devin (Lloyd) and so many other great leaders that coach Whitt always mentions from last season, it’s definitely some big shoes to fill,” he said. “It’s the biggest shoes I’ve had to fill in my life.
“Just being able to be compelling to my teammates and helping them get better in the film room, in the weight room, on the field, after practice, in the classroom. We’re all trying to get each other there, to the vision that the coaches have for us and that standard.”
Kaufusi could have wrapped up his college career after last season but he decided to take advantage of his extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and return for 2022.
“Last year, with eligibility stuff and getting old, I was thinking about hanging it up. What brought me back was, I wish I had all my years here. There’s something special about being a Utah football player. — Utah defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi, who played his first two seasons at BYU
“Last year, with eligibility stuff and getting old, I was thinking about hanging it up. What brought me back was, I wish I had all my years here,” he said. “There’s something special about being a Utah football player. It’s because the people here are special, from the top, coach Whitt, to the people that are behind the scenes in the training and equipment staff, our nutrition and the brotherhood that we have. I can’t picture myself walking away from that.”
Over the past few weeks, Kaufusi has enjoyed participating in spring ball.
“It’s going good. It’s going fast. The days are going fast and everybody’s playing fast, too,” he said. “Having such a special season that we had last year, making sure we build off that. Spring ball is far away from the season but it’s such an important part of becoming that team we want to be in the season.”
Last year’s special season culminated in an appearance in the Rose Bowl, where Utah fell in dramatic fashion to Ohio State 48-45 on New Year’s Day. Playing in the Rose Bowl was an unforgettable experience, Kaufusi said.
“Oh my gosh. It’s crazy. All growing up, you always hear about the Rose Bowl. You always watch it on TV. It was just surreal. It was the perfect setup,” Kaufusi said. “Coming off a championship and heading into the Rose Bowl, playing against Ohio State, it felt like college football at its highest level. It was a cool feeling to play and to be there.
“We want to have that feeling again. We loved it so much, we want to get back there. We had such a special team last year. It’s how the season went on and off the field. It’s the closest team I’ve ever been a part of. To be there all together, doing what you love with who you love is the most special feeling in the world.”
On top of that, he’ll have bragging rights forever with Bronson and Corbin because he was able to play in the Rose Bowl.
“Bronson was on his mission when BYU went independent. Being here at the U., playing in the Pac-12, being able to go to the Rose Bowl, not many people get to do that in their lives,” he said. “To be the first Utah football team to be able to do that was something special and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
“Growing up, I was going to BYU, to play in the Mountain West and independence. At first I never thought I’d be able to get (to the Rose Bowl),” he added. “But being here at the U. has given me the opportunity to play at the highest level of college football. It was special and it’s something to brag about at the dinner table with my brothers. It was a life-changing year.”
Kaufusi’s best friends while playing at Timpview High were Britain Covey, a Utah star and the program’s all-time leader in punt return yardage; and Gabe Reid, an outside linebacker who played from 2018-21 at Stanford.
In March, Reid announced that he is transferring to Utah for his final year of eligibility, and he’ll be reunited with Kaufusi and his younger brother, Ute linebacker Karene Reid. Gabe and Karene’s dad, Spencer, played at BYU from 1994-97.
For Kaufusi, it’s been “super weird” participating in spring ball without Covey.
“I texted him and Gabe. Brit was joking, ‘Gabe if you come, maybe I’ll come back.’ All three of us were best friends from our freshman year of high school. I wanted him to come for spring ball,” he said. “The first day of practice, during warmups, the returners are out there returning already. I was looking for Brit.
“We always try to scare each other. And Brit wasn’t there. I called him later and said, ‘I miss you out there. I’m seeing ghosts out there.’ He left his mark on the program and he’s left his mark on my life as a best friend. To be able to stand on his shoulders and look further.”
Covey is preparing for the NFL draft, but Kaufusi said Covey misses being part of Utah’s team this spring.
“I can see how tough it’s been for Brit. When I leave, it’s going to be tough for sure,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve become a part of that’s become a part of me.”
No doubt, Kaufusi has become a Utah Man.
Recently, during spring practices, he found himself in the football facility with Elliss and former NFL All-Pro Steve Smith, who also played at Utah when Devin’s dad coached here. Smith also played with Devin’s brother Bronson with the Baltimore Ravens years ago.
“Now, Steve Smith is done with football and Luther’s right here. We have two Pro-Bowlers in the NFL. It’s so special. It’s the standard here at Utah,” Kaufusi said. “I feel it’s like such a big leap from last year to this year. We’re not just here in the West, in Utah, in the Pac-12. We’re taking a stride forward to make Utah on the Mount Rushmore of college football. That’s where we’re trying to take it.”