‘A lot of lessons learned’: how Jordan Elliott became a defensive force for Missouri

The redshirt junior’s progression to being one of the top defensive linemen in the SEC began with a redshirt season.
Redshirt junior D-lineman Jordan Elliott hits Southeast Missouri State quarterback Daniel Santacaterina. Elliott has 28 tackles this season. Photo by Andrew Moore

Daniel Santacaterina took the snap out of the shotgun. He had three receivers lined up wide, but only had time to look at one of them because of pressure up the middle. Jordan Elliott easily shed his blocker and Santacaterina had no choice but to throw to a partially-covered receiver on the left side of the field.

He released the ball just as Elliott arrived. The pass fell incomplete, but Santacaterina had other problems to worry about as 315 pounds of NFL prospect defensive tackle lifted him up and came crashing down on top of him.

When Elliott hits a quarterback, he hits hard.

“I’m just trying to affect the quarterback any way I can,” he said. “I’m a big guy, so when I hit people it hurts.”

Elliott has been affecting quarterbacks for a long time. He’s also been a big guy for a long time, big enough for his high school defensive coordinator, Mike Barrow, to describe 15-year-old Elliott as a man-child. But for all the qualities Elliott has hung onto since his high school days, just as many have changed for the redshirt junior captain who has gone from entering Missouri’s program as a transfer to spearheading one of the top defenses in the nation.

He first made a name for himself in football the same way many have: by being bigger and stronger than everyone else in high school.

“In high school he was a man,” Barrow said. “He was just a force. People would run to the other side. They would change their whole offensive plan just to try to stay away from Jordan.”

As advanced as Elliott was physically, he had the intangible qualities that would allow him to succeed as well, although he didn’t always utilize them in the way he did his physical gifts. He showed flashes of leadership in high school, but his generally reserved demeanor prevented him from fully embracing the role.

“You could see it in him when he was here, but as a coach, you’re always trying to get the kids you know are going to be leaders, you’re trying to get them to lead,” Barrow said. “Sometimes, they just don’t want to. Not because they don’t know how; they’re just kind of afraid to.”

Tucked just inside the western city limits of Houston, Westside High School isn’t exactly a football powerhouse. The school was formed in 2000 as a result of overcrowding at nearby Margaret Long Wisdom High School, called Robert E. Lee High School at the time. Elliott’s sophomore through senior year, the team went 15-18, never ranking higher than No. 305 in the state. Players there generally don’t receive as much attention from college recruiters as those at schools deeper into the city.

Elliott, however, made himself impossible to ignore.

His junior year he recorded 78 tackles, 31 for a loss, and 12 sacks. Even more eye-popping than his statline was his 6-foot-4, 296 pound frame during his senior season.

“It was almost like he was a man playing with a bunch of little kids,” Barrow said.

It didn’t take long for the offers to start rolling in.

Hometown universities Texas and Houston both offered scholarships, as did most Southeastern Conference schools. Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Les Miles both personally came to Westside to give Elliott their respective pitches. Michigan was one of the most aggressive recruiters. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison was in Houston almost every weekend trying to gain an edge on the coveted four-star prospect.

Multiple assistant coaches from the University of Memphis were on hand for Westside’s spring game Elliott’s junior year. They watched as he lifted up a ball carrier and and planted him on the ground in a maneuver that might have been commonplace in a professional wrestling ring.

“Get the head coach on the phone,” Barrows remembers one saying. “We gotta offer this kid now.”

The visits, the offers, the constant attention from coaches and ultimately the decision was a lot of pressure for a teenager. Elliott had difficulty handling it all. He committed to and decommitted from Baylor, Houston and Michigan in a span of less than a year.

“I was young,” Elliott said. “It’s overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. It just depends on how you go about it. I was immature and trying to do it on my own.”

He ended up at the University of Texas with coach Tom Herman. Elliott had previously pledged to Herman at Houston before his second decommitment.

“I thought he was a very powerful, flexible, athletic defensive lineman,” then-Texas and current Missouri defensive line coach Brick Haley, one of Elliott’s primary recruiters, said. “He had a lot of quick-twitch … I thought he could bend well, a lot of flexibility. So all those things were traits that we thought were gonna make him a really quality football player.”

Texas proved to be a mistake. Elliott was steady when he saw the field, playing six games, but by the end of the season it was clear he wasn’t in the right place, saying shortly after he left he “never really enjoyed” Texas.

He announced his decision to transfer on May 18, 2017 and committed to Missouri eight days later.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” he said. “I just knew I was going to work and whatever was meant to be, I was gonna embrace that role.”

The announcement surprised Haley, who had left Texas for Missouri himself earlier in the offseason.

“I never knew Jordan was coming to Missouri until I saw it on Twitter,” Haley said. “It said ‘CoMo bound.’ I had no clue … I thought it was great, and I said ‘maybe a little heads-up would have helped me, though.’”

Per NCAA rules, Elliott had to redshirt his first season as a Tiger. Without a chance of getting on the field, he got to work in the weight room.

Elliott had lifted some in high school and at Texas, but he wasn’t able to fully dedicate himself in the gym until he arrived in Columbia with few other priorities.

“It’s a lot of early morning workouts,” he said. “I attacked it with the right mindset of just getting better, not really looking at it as ‘I’m up this early.’ I really appreciated the work that it was. I embraced it and took it on fully.”

The work paid off. At the end-of-season team banquet, he was awarded Lifter of the Year. More importantly, he was stronger. The dedication in the gym, coupled with an overhaul of his diet, had made him a nightmare for offensive linemen.

“I thought he was a little bit overweight at times when he first got here, maybe even his first year, and he’s transformed his body,” coach Barry Odom said. “He’s transformed, more than anything, his motor and his willingness to do it. He’s a talented guy that’s gonna play ball for a long time.”

As he worked on developing his frame, the time off from football gave Elliott the chance to slow down. After the whirlwind of the last two years — the recruiting process, three decommitments, his decision to transfer from Texas — the gameless season allowed for a period of quiet growth.

“Just a lot of lessons I learned as far as about myself,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t say necessarily physical things, but just mental things, and how I interact with people, the people I should hang around with, things like that. That was a year of growth, and a year where I gained a little bit of wisdom.”

Elliott played all 13 games of the 2018 season at defensive tackle. His stats weren’t spectacular: 24 tackles, 8 for a loss and 3 sacks, but they didn’t tell the full story. Elliott was consistently a presence up the middle, occupying double teams, disrupting plays and making his teammates’ jobs easier. Pro Football Focus, which uses a more advanced analytical approach to evaluation, ranked him as the top player on the Missouri defense.

“Just his presence up front, he controls the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “He’s active. He sets the tone for us right there in the middle of our defense and he causes havoc in on the pass game.”

Elliott also began to be more vocal with his teammates on the defensive line. He had a lead-by-example style of leadership dating back to high school, so his transition into a more talkative leader wasn’t a natural one.

“It was a long journey,” he said. “It still is. There were times where I necessarily didn’t want to be the vocal leader ‘cause I thought my actions alone could be enough. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized sometimes people need vocal leadership, especially when it’s from a person that they respect.”

His leadership was enough for his teammates to vote him as one of five captains for the 2019 season.

Haley, who has known Elliott since high school, has seen his transformation from quiet, indecisive teenager to captain of one of the top defenses in the country. Haley cited maturity, discipline and work ethic as Elliott’s biggest areas of improvement.

“The things that he’s done to reshape his body and his mind and just working at it every day with a constant goal in mind and that’s to be as good as he can be,” Haley said. “And [I have] been really pleased [with the] progress he’s made.”

On the field this year, Elliott’s anchored a unit that’s allowed an average of just over 18 points per game and kept opponents under 14 points four times. He’s recorded 28 tackles, seven for a loss and a sack, almost equaling his output from last season in eight games while providing the same disruption and contributions that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

“I’m expecting exactly what you’re seeing right now, and he’s lived up to every expectation we have,” Walters said. “It’s because of the way he works. He works really hard and so it’s no surprise that you’re seeing the level of play and the style of play on game days. We see it every day in practice.”

Elliott took a unique path to college football stardom. Transferring and having to sit out a year is never ideal, but he has no regrets of how things played out.

“Just finding myself and realizing that if you can persevere through this, you can persevere through anything,” he said. “I feel like that’s a part of my mentality now and part of my philosophy in life.”

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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