Utah’s Jonah Elliss is racking up sacks thanks to one specific pass-rush move

The junior defensive end originally projected to be a backup is currently second in the FBS in sacks thanks to setting up offensive tackles with a couple of outside moves, then blowing them away with an inside spin.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) grabs UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3) as he brings him down for a quarterback sack, in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and theUCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Jonah Elliss was supposed to be a backup defensive end for Utah football this season.

And now, after Saturday’s game at USC, his 10.0 sacks are second in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. He’s also tied for first with 14.0 tackles for loss.

Yes, he’s gotten opportunity, owing to injury and illness to projected starters Connor O’Toole (sports hernia surgery) and Van Fillinger (mononucleosis), but that alone doesn’t explain Elliss’s production.

And yes, the junior from Idaho has been hitting the weight room and film room, getting stronger, faster, and smarter. But the simple and standard cliché of just putting in the work is insufficiently explanatory, as well. It’s far more specific and nuanced than that.

O’Toole isn’t wrong when he declares, “Jonah’s freaking phenomenal. He’s a stud, he’s an absolutely great player.” But that addresses the who and the what, if not the how.

Fillinger best gets to the heart of it, first by explaining the Utes’ coaching staff’s philosophy: “All I’m really focused on is my fundamentals and my technique. … It’s really like trying to be a robot, man — I’m trying to make it look the same every play, and trying to do my job every play, and trying to just hone in on that and be more consistent every time.”

And then by succinctly addressing Elliss’ application of that methodology:

“Jonah is the best pass-rush technician that we have on our team right now,” Fillinger said simply.

Perhaps most centrally key to his success this season has been the weaponization of a specific move within his pass-rush arsenal.

“He’s got that inside spin,” said defensive tackle Junior Tafuna. “Man, that’s his bread and butter.”

“Oh, he’s killing people with that!” Fillinger added excitedly, a smile spreading across his face as he broke down his teammate’s technique.

Elliss naturally grows a bit embarrassed when informed of the praise and asked about the move.

But he also doesn’t take issue with anything they said. Well, except for one thing.

Tafuna called it his bread and butter. Elliss noted that the inside spin is not actually his go-to, but a counter to his primary move — something taught to him by 10-year NFL veteran, two-time Pro Bowler, and now Utah defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss, who happens to be Jonah’s father.

“My dad has always taught me [that] you have a bread-and-butter [move] and then you have your two counters,” Jonah Elliss said. “It’s been something I’ve always liked doing. I felt like when you get the spin, it’s very clean, and you get there very quickly because you’re taking such an aggressive angle. So I think the spin move is just something that I’ve always had off my bread and butter. So that’s how I got into it, and it’s just started working.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 9.0 sacks and is tied for first with 13.0 tackles for loss.

For the record, Elliss’s usual first move is a speed-based “double-swipe” off the edge.

Beyond that, he also employs a “bull rush” and a “long arm,” the latter of which entails using a single extended extremity to leverage a blocker out of position with precisely-placed power.

Starting off with those gets a tackle in the habit of overcommitting outside, thus leaving him susceptible to a sudden reversal of direction.

“I mean, you can see [how] he sets it up. … And you can see it pays off,” Fillinger said. “Every game he’s going in there creating havoc for the quarterback. And the reason why he’s that good is because he’s worked that technique over and over and over again.”

Elliss, again, gets humble upon hearing about how his teammates have extolled his proficiency with the move.

Still while he believes he can make it even better yet, he acknowledges that a ton of study and repetition has gone into getting it to this point.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfected yet. There’s always something that I can improve upon. But shoot, it was just a lot of work in the offseason work with all my coaches and whatnot, just mastering that,” Elliss said. “Reading [the offensive lineman’s] shoulder, when to spin, when not to spin. And you know, you’ve got to set it up first, you can’t just spin right off the bat. So you’ve got to work that edge, work those power moves, and then you can work the inside move.”

He seems to be working everything, with sacks in four of Utah’s six games thus far, highlighted by an eye-popping 3.5-sack performance in the win against UCLA.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley noted that Elliss has been a beneficiary of having talented players all across the defensive line to soak up some of the attention, as well as a talented secondary who can force opposing quarterbacks to hang onto the ball a bit longer with blanketing coverage. Still, he said, the biggest difference between Elliss this season and a year ago (when he finished with just three sacks) is the newfound confidence he has in his speed rush and its related counter-moves.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham, meanwhile, added that Elliss’s decision to focus on honing a handful of moves has proven a wise decision.

“It is very important to work on your individual moves. You don’t want too many moves because you dilute yourself and it’s hard to get good at any more than three or four moves,” he said. “It all starts on the edge with a speed rush, which he has a great get-off [for]. And a great speed rush forces those tackles to really bail out of there, which sets up the spin move and the counter-moves back inside. So it all ties together. You certainly don’t want not enough moves, but you don’t want too many moves. There’s a happy medium there.”

Elliss is making everyone on the Utes happy right now.

Opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles and coordinators, maybe not so much.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) sacks Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz (15) in football acton between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Tafuna entered the season as arguably the Utes’ most highly-regarded defensive lineman. And even he finds himself awed by and trying to keep up with what Elliss is now doing.

“He’s dominating, man, just no question,” said Tafuna. “… Jonah, man, he’s been doing it since Week 1. Everyone will continue to see it, and everyone else has got to follow along, keep up that pressure, and just keep getting back to the quarterback.”

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