Jonah and Luther Elliss are helping the Utah defense — and each other — get better

The Utes’ award-winning defensive end and his legendary dad, now serving as the team’s defensive tackles coach, are happy to be around each other at practices and games, and are both doing their part to bolster one of the best defenses in the nation this season.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss, left, and his father, defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss.

When Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa is asked to opine on positional coach Luther Elliss, his first few words are telling.

“He’s like having a dad in the room,” Pepa said.

It makes sense, considering Elliss does actually have a son on the team.

Defensive end Jonah Elliss has become something of a big deal for the Utes after totaling 10 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks (including 2.5 in the fourth quarter) in last Saturday’s 14-7 win over UCLA — a performance that earned him Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Pac-12 Defensive Line Player of the Week honors.

Pretty impressive.

Maybe even more so considering the expectations that are tied to being a defensive lineman named Elliss at the University of Utah.

“What adds another level of craziness to that is just who his dad is. His dad’s a legend,” said fellow Utes defensive end Logan Fano. “So it’s cool to see [that even though] his dad’s a legend, he’s making a name for himself.”

Luther Elliss is, indeed, a legend.

He played at the U. from 1991-94, earning consensus All-America honors and the WAC Defensive Player of the Year award in 1994. He also earned three all-conference selections. He was selected No. 20 overall in the 1995 NFL draft, and in his 10-year career, he started 119 of 134 regular-season games, totaled 331 tackles and 29 sacks, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1999 and 2000.

And now, the No. 83 jersey that Luther Elliss wore for the Utes is being worn by Jonah.

(University of Utah) Luther Elliss, left, during his playing days.

“It’s fun watching him. He’s doing some really good things,” said Luther Elliss.

Jonah’s 5.5 sacks over the course of the Utes’ first four games led the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. Beyond the 3.5 he had against the Bruins, he started the season off with a bang by getting two sacks in the opener vs. Florida.

His dad was just as impressed with the games against Baylor and Weber State, though, even if Jonah didn’t take any QBs down on those days.

“He didn’t get home [those] couple games, but he was winning,” said Luther Elliss. “O-linemen or defensive line, when you see somebody that plays well, yeah, they might not get all the credit or whatever, but you see him playing well and doing things well, you know you have to play your best game to go against them. So to see him doing those type of things …”

And it’s not as though Jonah Elliss grew up getting a crash course in defensive line play from his dad. He was, after all, recruited when he was a running back and linebacker in high school.

“That was a projection … with the Elliss genetics,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “You see his dad, so we thought he was going to get bigger, and he did. And he’s turned into a really good defensive end.”

The head coach added that Jonah Elliss has put on 25 pounds of good weight since his arrival on campus, and not only hasn’t lost any speed, but actually is “probably faster than he was when he got here.”

Jonah Elliss got to this Utes team before his dad did, anyway.

A three-star recruit on both 247Sports and Rivals, Jonah Elliss was the No. 1-rated prospect in the state of Idaho out of Moscow Senior High School, and joined the Utah program in 2021, initially seeing action as a reserve linebacker and on special teams.

Luther Elliss didn’t return to the Utes until 2022, after spending the previous five seasons as the defensive line coach at the University of Idaho.

Some athletes might be less than keen to suddenly have a parent on the staff of the program they play for. Jonah Elliss, though, said he’s thrilled to have his dad on staff. While he gets the majority of his instruction from defensive ends coach Lewis Powell, Luther Elliss is providing plenty of assistance behind the scenes.

“I love it. He’s always looking out for me and always making sure I’m getting that extra film work, and always make sure I’m doing things right,” said Jonah Elliss. “Even in the [drills] we run, he’s making sure I’m not false-stepping at all, he’s making sure my get-off is perfect. I love him being out here with me.”

Some of his teammates aren’t certain they’d love it as much if they were in his shoes.

“That would be crazy, that would be insane,” said Fano.

“I can’t imagine it because my dad, I’m pretty sure, would just give me an earful every day, even if I had a great practice!” Pepa added with a laugh. “There would always be something he’d just have to say.”

Whittingham, however, who played linebacker at BYU under his father, Fred, said he knows first-hand the benefits that can come from such an arrangement.

“Having played for my father, I know that’s a great motivator, and I think it is for Jonah as well,” said Whittingham. “Especially with Luther’s expertise being the defensive line, and that’s where Jonah plays, so they can talk football and continue to talk about ways to get better at home. … I see it as a plus. I see it [like that] 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.”

If the personal dynamics are navigable, then it comes down to the quality of the coaching.

And the players who are with the elder Elliss every day note that he definitely makes a difference.

“He’s always checking up on you, always making sure you’re doing good in school and taking care of business. But when it comes to football, ‘greatness’ is the only word I can describe when it comes to coach Elliss. That’s all he expects is greatness — and perfection — but he’ll do whatever he can to help us reach greatness,” said Pepa. “… He’s just a great coach. We love him, you know? He doesn’t just look at football, but he also looks at our own lives and always just finds ways to help us out, inside football and outside.”

But then, it’s not just the Luther Elliss Effect that’s driving Jonah’s stellar season.

Originally projected as the backup right end behind Van Fillinger, Elliss has been thrust into a consistent role and consistent playing time, owing to Fillinger being in and out of the lineup on account of injury and illness, while projected starting left end Connor O’Toole has yet to take the field yet this season for the Utes.

As a result, Whittingham noted that Elliss and Fano played nearly every defensive snap in the UCLA game.

The work he has put in is apparent to the other Utes defenders, and a big component in Utah being among the nation’s best defenses thus far.

“He’s just a baller, man. … He competes all the time, he’s always trying to get better — he’s always trying to be the best,” said Fano. “… He’s relentless, his motor is insane. He just never stops.”

“He knew he was good last year, but I feel like this year he knows he can beat every single person in front of him,” added Pepa. “… When you have a D-end like him that the O-line has to worry about, it makes our job a lot easier. I’m just super proud of him. And I can’t wait to see how many more sacks he can get this year. I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Jonah Elliss appreciates the praise and the accolades. And he’s proud of the numbers he’s put on the stat sheet thus far.

But the only figure that No. 83 is interested in at the moment is the number zero.

He’s dying for the Utes to post a shutout.

“I mean, we’re always shooting for that. The big zero on the screen is the best-looking thing ever,” he said. “But yeah, it’s definitely a bummer that we haven’t gotten one yet.”