CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even K.J. Henry realized what he was saying sounded a tad unusual in spite of the statement’s truth.
“I love Coach E,” Henry, the veteran Clemson defensive end said Wednesday while referring to former Tigers offensive coordinator and first-year Virginia coach Tony Elliott. “He’s one of my favorite coaches along this journey.”
Henry admitted a defensive end and an offensive coordinator — or running backs coach, which is the position group Elliott mentored during 10 of his 11 seasons as an assistant at Clemson — typically don’t have much on-field interaction or many reasons to speak during practice.
But Henry, the hulking presence on the edge of the Tigers’ defensive front, explained during the first of two ACC media days in Charlotte that the offensive-minded Elliott never let a potential barrier alter his pursuit of gaining a player’s trust.
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“How can one of my favorite coaches be a running backs coach?” Henry continued with a laugh. “Right? And it’s that simple: It’s how he goes about making genuine relationships with players. It’s the same thing you see in [Clemson coach Dabo] Swinney. Coach E obviously has taken a note from that book and shown he cares for his guys and shown that he wants the best for them on and off the field, and I can appreciate that as someone who has been trying to find out about myself during this college experience.”
Henry said once he arrived to Clemson in 2018, Elliott initiated conversations and the pair built a bond. Henry expects Elliott to continue that player-friendly approach in his new gig as the man in charge of the Cavaliers.
The same idea was echoed by Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and offensive tackle Jordan McFadden, too, who both said one of Elliott’s greatest strengths is his ability to relate to players in different ways.
According to Uiagalelei, Elliott’s passionate speeches to the Clemson offense on game days were always valued in the locker room, and will be missed by the Tigers this season.
“He’d always come in right before we left to go to the stadium and give a great motivational speech,” McFadden said. “There’s not one in particular that stands out, but a lot of the times he’d quote songs that he listens to or bible verses. … He’d tell us also to, ‘Go play as you were a kid who just loves the game of football,’ and at the end of the day, playing for a guy who wants you to have fun and keeps God at the forefront of everything is amazing.”
Said Uiagalelei: “He just did a great job talking to us and setting the tone for the game.”
Uiagalelei said Elliott never became discouraged early last fall when Clemson wasn’t scoring as frequently as it had in previous years. Instead, Elliott was patient, encouraged players and stressed the importance of executing their responsibilities better.
The Tigers never panicked, their signal-caller said, and after averaging 15.1 points per game through their first six contests against FBS competition, they rattled off five straight games — against Florida State, Louisville, Connecticut, Wake Forest and South Carolina — with at least 30 points to close the regular season.
“Coach Elliott is a great dude, a great mentor and he had a lot of wise words for us,” Uiagalelei said, “a lot of wisdom and for him, he is a real laid-back dude but he was so smart while speaking Xs and Os when we were on the white board also. He’s just a real good guy to talk to and a really good friend. I’m excited for him.”
Henry and McFadden each said they’re eager for Elliott’s head-coaching chance as well and both believe he’ll find success in Charlottesville.
“Especially with where college football is today,” McFadden said, “you want a coach who can relate to players and him being able to relate to us was great.”
Swinney said he told Elliott after being offered the UVa job that he needed to take it.
The pair won two national championships together and reached the College Football Playoff six times.
“I felt like he was a great fit for Virginia,” Swinney said, “and I felt like Virginia was a great fit for Tony and his family. He has turned down several head jobs over the last few years, but I felt like Virginia was the right fit for him.
“As far as how prepared he is, he is incredibly prepared,” Swinney added. “I’ve been with Tony 19 years. I coached Tony. He was a captain for me. He has been around a long time now. He knows what it looks like. [He is] incredibly smart, [and] is a very gifted coach.”