Like father, like son: Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss is following — and excelling — in his father’s footsteps
After a move from linebacker to defensive end in 2022, the younger Elliss has hit an elite level this season and leads the nation in sacks
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knew Jonah Elliss would be a special player.
A three-star recruit out of Moscow, Idaho, Elliss was tabbed as a linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He was the No. 1 recruit in the Gem State, but had a short offer list consisting of Utah, Air Force, Army, Boise State, Idaho, Louisville, Washington State and Weber State.
“He’s relentless. He’s got a great motor. Not the biggest guy. 6-2, 245, but he just keeps coming at you.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on Johah Ellis
He followed in his dad’s footsteps and chose Utah, enrolling in 2021. He saw backup action as a linebacker in his freshman season, notably registering his first career sack in Utah’s Pac-12 championship win over Oregon and recovering two fumbles that season.
But Whittingham always envisioned Elliss on the defensive line, just like his dad was.
“That was a projection. I think he was a running back in high school and a linebacker and we took him. The Elliss genetics, you see his dad, so we thought he was going to get bigger and he did,” Whittingham said.
Luther Elliss, of course, is one of Utah football’s most dominant defenders and best NFL exports. In four seasons at Utah, from 1991 to 1994, the defensive tackle racked up 239 tackles, 18 sacks and 29 tackles for loss. After terrorizing offenses en route to consensus All-America and WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1994, he was picked No. 20 overall in the 1995 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, the third-highest Utah defender selected in the NFL draft to this day.
He had a 10-year career in the league, playing nine years for Detroit, and was named to two Pro Bowls (1999 and 2000).
So it was no surprise that Jonah Elliss, who wears the same jersey number (83) as his dad, took after his old man and switched to a spot on the defensive line — defensive end, specifically — starting in the 2022 season.
But first, he had to bulk up. He went from 210 pounds in high school to 241 pounds by 2022.
Jonah performed well in his first full season in the trenches, starting eight games in 2022 and garnering a Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention. He had 26 tackles with six tackles for loss and three sacks. He also forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles.
That same season, Luther, who had spent the past five seasons at Idaho as the Vandals’ defensive line coach, was hired as Utah’s defensive tackles coach.
Though he doesn’t specifically coach Jonah’s position group, Luther is always there for his son.
“I love it. I mean, he’s always looking out for me and always making sure I’m getting the extra film work and always making sure I’m doing things right. ... I love him being out here with me,” Jonah Elliss said.
This season, Jonah Elliss has hit an elite level. He leads the nation in sacks (5.5), surpassing his entire 2022 sack total in just one game on Saturday after dropping UCLA quarterback Dante Moore 3.5 times. He also has eight tackles for loss through four games.
“Yeah, it’s fun watching him. He is doing some really good things,” Luther said.
With projected defensive end starter Connor O’Toole yet to make his season debut, Elliss has played a lot of snaps, including just about every one in the 14-7 win over UCLA with the additional absence of Van Fillinger.
Elliss’ first takedown of Moore came on third-and-3 near the end of the first half, beating his man with a spin move. The sack came right after Utah’s first, and only, offensive touchdown of the day and allowed the Utes to go into halftime up 14-0.
He got to Moore again in the fourth quarter, sacking him for a loss of 12 yards to set up third-and-26 from the Bruins’ 3-yard line. UCLA did score on the drive, but Elliss’ sack put them in a tough position, and it was a good showing from Moore to go 91 yards on the drive.
Elliss saved the best for last.
The Bruins had the ball down seven points with three minutes left in the game, vying for a game-tying score. Out of the four UCLA plays on the last series, three ended in sacks, with two of those coming via Elliss.
Using a perfect swim move, Elliss burst through UCLA’s offensive line to drop Moore on first down, then just flat-out beat his man on second down and stayed with the play as Moore tried to escape, sandwiching him with Logan Fano to move the Bruins back to their own 3-yard line. Sione Vaki finished the job with a fourth-down sack to win the game for the Utes.
After a dominant performance in Utah’s first Pac-12 game of the season, Whittingham heaped praise on the junior defensive end.
“He’s relentless. He’s got a great motor. Not the biggest guy. 6-2, 245, but he just keeps coming at you. He’s got some really good pass rush moves, great spin move and the speed rush is something that he excels in and he’s just been a tremendous player for us,” the longtime Utah coach said.
Having played for his father at BYU — Fred Whittingham was the Cougars’ defensive coordinator when Kyle was starring at linebacker in Provo — Whittingham knows how beneficial it can be to have your father on staff.
“Having his dad here, having played for my father, I know that’s a great motivator and I think it is for Jonah as well,” Whittingham said. “Especially with Luther’s expertise being the defensive line and that’s where Jonah plays, they can talk football and continue to talk about ways to get better at home.”
“I see it as a plus. I see it because I lived it, I went through it and I think that’s just one more resource and just a way to continue to refine your game.”
Utes on the air
No. 10 Utah (4-0)
vs. No. 19 Oregon State (3-1)
Friday, 7 p.m. MDT
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
Through four games, Utah is 4-0 and has a claim to one of the best defenses in the country, even with key contributors injured, thanks in no small part to the play of Elliss.
“I mean, it means so much. You see that our second-, third-string guys can all play and compete with the other team’s starters. So the amount of depth that we have and just all of them being able to step up and cover ... for all of our guys that were down is awesome. It’s really good to see. We have a lot of depth on our team,” Elliss said.
Utah’s defense ranks No. 6 in the country in average points allowed (9.5), and the Utes are still not completely at full strength yet.
“I think we’re doing amazing stuff. We’ve held every team to under 15 points, so I think we’re doing awesome. I think we’re running around having fun, honestly, that’s probably what it is. We’re all just having fun, so it’s a lot of fun to be out there,” Elliss said.