Elijah Molden: Path to the NFL Draft
So much coverage of the NFL is focused around measurables, thresholds, requisite sizes. As a result, players get bracketed, pigeon-holed, labelled. As a 5’10” cornerback headed to the NFL, that generalisation comes with the label “slot cornerback” – or even “move him to safety”. As he prepares for the 2021 NFL Draft, Washington cornerback Elijah Molden has had those stereotypes thrown at him. It’s safe to say he isn’t interested in a word of it.
“I guess it kind of rubs me up the wrong way a little bit. People who say you can only do one thing, I just don’t think they know football very well. I remember even in high school it was kind of the same deal. I was told, I read, in high school that I wouldn’t be much of anything in college because I’d already reached my ceiling because my Dad already taught me everything I was ever going to know. I was like F you. I got to college and I did what I did.”
February 7th, 2021 – The confetti rained down on the Raymond James Stadium turf as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy as winners of Super Bowl LV. Amongst the melee of players celebrating, a young man and his father embraced. Antoine Winfield Jr, the Buccaneers safety, grabbed his former NFL star father shouting “pops we did it”. A week later and a media company tweeted out a video of the scene.
Within hours, Elijah Molden hit the quote tweet button:
Alex Molden was a standout cornerback at the University of Oregon who went on to have an eight-year NFL career with the New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, and Detroit Lions. With a similar pathway to the NFL through the PAC-12, it’s easy to see that Elijah Molden is the apple that didn’t fall too far from the tree.
“I grew up around the game of football. One of my first memories was him getting an interception. My mum, my older brother, and I were stuck in traffic and we were late to a game. We were sat in our car seats and my Mum got a phone call and she was like “Dad got a pick! Dad got a pick!”. At the time I didn’t even know what that meant but I remember her excitement. Just from there, my love for football has been building.”
Both 5’10” and 190 pounds, there’s more than just a passing physical resemblance between father and son. There may also be some advantages that father passed down to son that could lead to Elijah Molden being an even better footballer when he lands in the NFL.
“There’s some similarities, and there’s some differences. People always say we move the same out on the field. Like, even in between plays my mum say’s we always move the same. We look to the sideline the same and get in our stance the same. One thing I have that he didn’t have is, I guess, the football intelligence that I have at this point. Just because, he didn’t have his Dad play in the league, so I was fortunate enough to have a whole lot of knowledge passed down to me and that gave me a boost.”
Football intelligence is one factor that helps separate Elijah Molden from what is a deeply talented cornerback class at the 2021 NFL Draft. Washington teammate Levi Onwuzurike told me that Molden reads the game unlike anyone else. It’s a testament to not only his father’s early influence but a commitment to a relentless study of the game.
“I think it’s just film. I’m pretty dedicated on how I prepare for the game. I take pride in the amount of film I watch and the level of detail I’ll go in to. There was a time early on where I watched a lot of film, so I had a lot of ideas and concepts in my mind but whenever I’d go out on the field it’d be too much, too much thinking. But the last couple of years I’ve done a good job of taking what I’ve seen on film and simplifying it, making it as simple as possible for when I step out on the field. That’s when you can react without even thinking.”
High School State Champs
The family connection helped build Elijah Molden’s football foundation in multiple ways. Alex was a father at home, but a coach on the sidelines. Elijah had a successful high school career at West Linn where a high-profile coaching staff paid dividends with results on the field.
“We were pretty spoiled with the level of coaching staff we had there. I think about half the staff played professional football or collegiate football. Our head coach was a quarterback coach in the NFL, and my Dad was the defensive back coach. I was surrounded with people who knew what they were talking about as opposed to a coach who kinda tells you what to do but may not know the detail behind it or the reason why.”
From an 8-3 program in 2014, Elijah Molden and his high school class helped develop West Linn into an undefeated, State Championship winning program by the time he departed. Although his roots were on the defensive side of the ball, there was a running back also trapped inside his diminutive frame. In three starting seasons, he had over 2,500 rushing yards and 36 rushing touchdowns.
“In middle school I really wanted to be a running back. Like, everyone knows who the running back is. But my Dad quickly told me I wasn’t going to be a running back and crushed my dreams a little bit. Just because, at corner he’d be able to teach me more and they have longer careers.”
Playing both sides of the ball in high school helped prepare him for the transition to college football.
“Playing both ways in high school made the games really long. I got used to playing without any breaks so when I transitioned to college and I was only playing one way I wouldn’t get tired very often.”
Forging His Own Collegiate Path
Elijah Molden’s transition to college would see a noticeable separating of the family footpath to the NFL Draft. Alex had a sensational career at Oregon which led to him being inducted into the Ducks Hall of Fame. Although Elijah entertained an offer from Oregon, his path would take him to a different PAC-12 powerhouse.
“For the longest time I wanted to go to Oregon. Out of nowhere, the coaching staff were fired. They’d been there for a long time and out of nowhere they were fired, and it just wasn’t the right fit for me there. My next dream was to go to Stanford and play for them but again it wasn’t the right fit. I took my trip to UW and I fell in love with it right away. For two weeks I was like ‘I need to commit soon’, and I could have chosen any one of those three. It ended up paying off for sure.”
As he heads to the 2021 NFL Draft following two award-winning seasons, his decision to commit to Washington certainly has paid off for Elijah Molden. However, he didn’t see the immediate success for the Huskies that he originally anticipated on arrival. In fact, it would be over two years before he got his first start for the program.
“My goal was to be the starter by Week 3. I went in there and the dude ahead of me was a lot better than me. I knew eventually I would be the starter and I was willing to work for as long as it would take. It took a long time for me to start at that position. It was tough, just because I love the game and I want to be playing. At the time I was a special teams guy so I embraced that role and took everything day-by-day.”
That ability to play special teams is just another feather in the cap of Elijah Molden’s 2021 NFL Draft stock. It can be a difference maker as NFL teams sit down to decide who they want to keep on their roster.
“It’s important. Not a lot of people on special teams get recognition but that doesn’t make that job any less important. I took it as a challenge to do the hard thing. Not a lot of people want to be on special teams but I choose to be.”
Breakout Season: Overcoming Adversity
When the opportunity to start came in 2019, Elijah Molden grabbed it with both hands. The Washington cornerback earned first team All-PAC-12 honors in a season where he racked up 79 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 12 pass break ups, and 3 forced fumbles. Although cornerback play shouldn’t be defined by interceptions, he snagged 4 picks – with the first coming against USC.
“The week prior we played BYU and I should have had two picks that game, and I dropped them. So I got in to like a little rut where I was like ‘do I even know how to catch a football?!’ Honestly, I don’t remember what it was like in the moment because I always say that on all my good plays I kinda like black out. I kinda let my body take control and trust myself. I remember being really excited though because we really needed a spark.”
It’s easy to look at football success and picture it as a straight-forward process. You’re good at something, you know you’re good at it, you succeed. Those two missed opportunities against BYU demonstrated a mentality and process within Elijah Molden that leads to that eventual success.
“It’s tough. I think every player goes through it. Every player has doubts and a certain level of insecurity and they’re lying to you if they say they don’t. But that’s also the reason why those players are good. Because they’re willing to put in the work to overcome that adversity. It didn’t keep me up at night, but it was certainly something I knew I needed to get better at.”
More Than A Slot Cornerback
The breakout year of 2019 led into another extremely successful year in 2020. Despite the disruption of the college football season, Elijah Molden emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. He earned second team All-American honors from Pro Football Focus in addition to being named their PAC-12 Player of the Year.
For the second consecutive season he earned first team All-PAC-12 recognition. Most importantly he demonstrated on the field his ability to disrupt the game in multiple ways and showcased his versatility in doing so from several different alignments. He points to the Utah game as a perfect example of why he isn’t “just a slot cornerback”.
“The Utah game from this past year is pretty good. There’s a couple of plays. There’s a play in the first quarter where I get a tackle for loss. In the third quarter I get an interception on a third down.”
"When The Season Comes, It's Too Late To Get Better"
Following the season Elijah Molden declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. As we talk, he’s training out in Irvine, California which – other than making me insanely jealous sat listening to the howling rain and wind – gives him further opportunity to prepare for the next step. Forever a student of the game, he knows the off-season is the time to make it count and be ready for when your time is called.
“I love the off-season because I feel like that’s when I set up myself for the next year and put in all the work. I always tell myself that when the season comes, it’s too late to get better, you know what I mean? It’s tough to sharpen your skills throughout the season because you’re preparing for an opponent. You can really focus on yourself in the off-season. I’m doing what I love.”
The fruits of the off-season labour will be on show at the Washington Pro Day on March 30th. With opportunities limited in this process, including the cancellation of the in-person NFL Combine, it serves as a pivotal part of the process to show that athletic ability goes hand-in-hand with playmaking skills and football intelligence.
“Things can change all the time. Just this past year we’ve had to be adaptable with COVID and I’m hesitant to set things in stone because it might change just like that. I’ll control what I’m able to control and I’ll be able to run fast, jump high, and all that stuff.”
Although it’s relatively early in the process – the 2021 NFL Draft is still seven weeks away and the new NFL league year doesn’t start until March 17th – Elijah Molden has attracted a lot of interest from the teams that he’s spoken to already. However, he remains philosophical and more importantly is using the process to continue his football education.
“I’m getting some interviews and they’re all going well and I’m getting some interest. I’m not a quarterback and in the league there’s probably 15 teams that need a quarterback, something like that, whereas every team needs a DB. There’s going to be five out there on the field at all times. I’ve had a lot of interviews because everyone needs versatility in their back end. It’s been fun to sit with coaches and learn from them.”
There’s no doubt that versatility is one word to describe Elijah Molden. He jokes that he wants to be able to play every single position on defense. Another word is tenacious. Versatility, tenacity, and playmaking ability, all combine to make him an intriguing and exciting cornerback prospect in this 2021 NFL Draft. Additionally, there is an off-field skillset that he brings to an NFL locker room.
“I’m someone who won’t just provide value to the team on the field but also outside the field. I know I’m going to be a rookie and I’m not going to go in there and start telling vets what to do but I think I’ll do what I’ve always done and work hard and lead by example, earn the trust of my teammates, and then make big plays when we need them the most.”
Just The Start
Alex Molden was the last defensive back out of Oregon to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. There is a distinct possibility that Elijah Molden follows in his father’s footsteps and hears his name called on the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft. Whether that is in person in Cleveland or via video link to Roger Goodell’s basement, he knows that as well as achieving one dream, it only serves to form the beginning of another.
“It would mean 22 years of my life coming to fruition. In a sense, it’s just the start of my dream. I have goals and expectations beyond being drafted but this is a milestone I’ve been looking forward to since I was a kid.”
Like Antoine Winfield Sr, Alex Molden’s NFL career ended without a Super Bowl ring.
If Elijah Molden can recreate that moment on the Raymond James Stadium field with his own father, that would be truly something special. The next step on that journey is not too far away.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Huge thanks to Elijah Molden for taking the time to speak to us.