It's easy to lose FSU's Javien Elliott at practice. As members of the media, we're allotted a brief period of time to cull through a hoard of bodies running in different directions, garnering whatever information we can about the current state of the 'Noles. Necessity rather dictates that we focus the majority of this time on the ones and twos, and hence, you've not read much about Elliott (5-11, 176) recently.
But after fulfilling every walk-on's dream of earning a scholarship just before this season began, Elliott became one of those noteworthy players against Louisville on Saturday. A redshirt-senior defensive back from Panama City, Florida, Elliott was called upon at a crucial point, as the Seminoles battled a feisty and talented Cardinals team in Doak Campbell Stadium.
After trailing 7-6 at halftime, FSU got off to a nice start in the second half, when Dalvin Cook provided FSU's first touchdown on a 54-yard touchdown run to give the 'Noles a 13-7 lead. Florida State had momentum; but the Cards grabbed it right back.
That happened in the form of UL quarterback Lamar Jackson finding receiver James Quick wide open in the end zone, a play on which Tyler Hunter was quite out of position. Hunter, who'd played in place of the injured Trey Marshall, then gave way to Elliott, who took the field with the defense at the star position after Kermit Whitfield's 70-yard TD reception put FSU back ahead, 20-14.
It felt like this one might go back and forth, down to the wire. You've seen Florida State play this kind of game numerous times over the last season and a half: allowing an inferior opponent to hang around, letting it come down to a final make-or-break possession.
Instead, Elliott played a significant role in making sure that never transpired. But as if to mirror the struggle that comprised his journey to significant playing time with the FSU defense, nothing would be handed to Elliott.
He stepped in with the responsibility of covering the talented Quick, who was playing in the slot position that had already done damage against the Florida State secondary the previous week vs. Miami, and had been the sole source of points for UL. I asked him if he was nervous fulfilling such a critical role. His response was confident, but not cocky: "Nope . . . I feel like we worked extremely hard, you know, and as long as you stay true to your technique, as long as you stay true to what you've been coached to do, you know, good things will happen to you."
That said, it doesn't mean Elliott wasn't nervous. He conceded that "everyone gets nervous a little bit," but, fittingly, cited the special teams work that helped him earn a shot with the defense as helping him get loose for when he finally got the call from FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly: "By that time, I was just like, it's time to go. It's time to work."
And that work began immediately. The first pass Louisville threw with Elliott in the game was a slant to Quick. Elliott wasn't surprised that the Cards tested him immediately, and he spoke to it stoicly: "Oh yeah, I knew they was gonna pick on me." It's a perspective gained through the humility that achieving this opportunity has required.
But after that first target, with Elliott right there in Quick's hip pocket, fell incomplete, something happened.
Elliott embraced the moment-- and began really to enjoy it. I noticed him inciting the crowd, imploring the FSU faithful to get loud, and asked him if he shed the nerves and was able to have a little fun: "Yeah! I felt more loose, just being out in Doak Campbell, it's a great feeling, you know, I just felt a part of it, a part of the family."
And then came the big play. With FSU finally achieving its first two-score lead of the game, Jackson decided to test Elliott once more, this time on a deep ball. Quick fell down on the route, but, nevertheless, Elliott was with him stride-for-stride, which put him in great position for his first career interception.
The ball, hanging in the air, yours for the taking. It's a surreal moment for a DB, for one used to isolated, albeit close, combat. I asked Elliott how long Jackson's pass seemed to linger as he waited below. He sighed, and responded: "It was quiet, it felt like there was no one in the stands, and then as soon as it hit my hands, I heard everything."
He pulled in the pick, which facilitated the FSU offense snagging its first three-score lead of the game.
It was certainly a watershed moment for Elliott, individually. But just as he spoke about his ascendance as an acclimation to a family, so was he greeted when he secured FSU's only interception of the game. Simply put, his teammates mobbed him.
His reaction: "It was huge, you know? I wasn't expecting to have that kind of reaction, but for me to try to get up, and having like ten people in my face, and just pushing me back to the ground, I couldn't do nothing but smile; it was a huge moment. Even when I got to the sideline, they were pushing me around."
But anyone could tell that this wasn't just any interception for FSU, even if it did come at an opportune time. Head coach Jimbo Fisher spoke about why Elliott's pick elicited the response it did from his teammates:
"The respect. That's what it's about. You go get respect by how you ‐‐ it's not your talent but how you go about your business, how you live your life, how you practice, how you worked hard, and those guys, they know how hard he worked to get there, and they appreciate it. There wasn't no jealousy in it at all. That was a big play."
Fisher also addressed the larger significance of Elliott's contributions, and how he was able to chip in after overcoming the odds that he did:
That guys' heart and soul was in it. He made plays. He hustled. You put him on that kickoff team, you go back and look at every kickoff every week, he's one of our top guys on special teams, making plays. Hey, we needed a player here, defense, we've got some guys hurt, guys injured, things going on, he played his tail off in practice, got ready, and I don't know if people in today's time, with as many people playing football, and the walk‐ons in the old days, trying to get on the field at an elite level at a school like this with the way we recruit, to walk on here, to get a scholarship, and to go out and make plays on special teams and then go play with those guys on defense and make big plays in the game, help turn that thing around, I don't know if we really appreciate how hard and what that young man has done, what he has done and how big that is, how hard that is to do, especially on a team that has a lot of talented players. I'll tell you what, here's an example of 'I don't care.' 'I'm just going to go play.' Our teammates love him. Our team loves him.
The swarm of reporters around Elliott after the win he helped to secure over Louisville spoke volumes. He fought for a scholarship, and then clawed his way onto special teams, and ultimately ran with the first-team defense and made a huge play in a tight game. Elliott has not only finally garnered the attention of the media and Florida State fans-- more importantly, his efforts have earned him the undying affection of his FSU coaches and teammates. And, perhaps, given the unfortunate and possibly season-ending injury to Marshall, the opportunity to contribute further.