It may not match up on the scale or the measuring tape, but if you were able to peer into the heart that makes Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts tick, you might find it draped in a black-and-purple jersey with a “52” on either side.
When the Port Arthur, Texas, native thinks about who he models his game after, it’s about passion and intensity, not numbers.
“I model my game after Ray Lewis,” Roberts says. “Before every college game I played, I would pull up the same motivational video by him. I would just watch how he takes over his whole defense, how they rally around him. The whole team knew, if this guy was ready to go, we’re ready to go. That helped build me into the player I am today. I felt like if my vibe wasn’t right, my team’s vibe wasn’t right. And just from watching him, he taught me how to be a leader and how to take control of your team.”
It may be a little early to compare him to a future Hall of Famer, but Roberts was one of the most productive defenders in college football last year. He was the heart and soul of a defense that helped lead the Cougars to a 13-1 record, including a Peach Bowl upset of a Top 10 Florida State team.
The nation’s leading tackler in 2015 with 88 solo stops and tallying six sacks, Roberts was overlooked when it came to NFL Scouting Combine invites. Despite his impressive production and earning first-team all-conference honors in 2015, Roberts had to wait until the Cougars’ pro day to go through the athletic gauntlet for NFL scouts.
He didn’t disappoint, running a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and putting up 25 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, per NFL.com. The 6’0”, 235-pounder also answered questions about his athleticism during positional drills, showing an impressive combination of power and mobility, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle.
Here’s a look at Roberts working through drills with Houston Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, courtesy of Houston’s director of recruiting, Derek Chang:
Despite being snubbed by the combine, Roberts was confident going into his pro day:
“I knew going into the pro day that I was going to put up some big numbers and show the scouts that even though I didn’t get invited to the combine, I’m going to show you why I was the leader in solo tackles and why I was so productive,” Roberts said of his performance.
Roberts’ on-field success shows up in the box score, but it’s what he brings to the table as a leader that truly sets him apart, according to Houston head coach Tom Herman:
“He’s probably one of the top three leaders I’ve been around in coaching,” said Herman. “He’s very vocal, but he backs it up with his work ethic and his performance on game day.”
It turns out Roberts’ primary inspiration shows through.
“He’s just an intense, intense guy…a Ray Lewis-type guy,” Herman said. “He’s as intense, with his pregame speeches and/or pre-practice speeches and/or his on-the-sideline talks with his team. And that’s the kind of intensity he goes out and plays with, too. He’s just a 24/7/365 ball of intensity.”
Herman wasn’t surprised when Roberts turned heads with his pro day workout, either.
“Maybe the misconception was that he was slow and stiff, but this is a kid who has worked extremely hard to change his body, his flexibility, his athleticism,” Herman said. “I think, maybe the knock on him was that he was slow, but I think he dispelled that with his pro day.”
Herman knows a thing or two about watching talented linebacker prospects. As Ohio State’s offensive coordinator for three seasons (2012-2014), he had a front-row seat to 2014 first-round pick Ryan Shazier, as well as a projected first-rounder in this year’s draft, Darron Lee.
Some detractors might point to Roberts’ lone season of high-level production at Houston, pegging him as a one-year wonder. His head coach doesn’t see it that way at all.
“This is a guy who got his shot, in terms of his turn on the depth chart and with coaching changes, and he seized the moment,” Herman said. “I can’t imagine that being a one-year thing. I think it’s just a guy who seized the opportunity. Although it came late in his career, he was given kind of a fresh start and a new lease on his football career, and he took advantage of it.”
Indeed, 2015 wasn’t the first time Roberts took advantage when given an opportunity to make a big impact.
Roberts began his collegiate career at Morgan State, where he started as a freshman and led the team with 107 tackles. When MSU went through a coaching change following that season, Roberts was granted his release from the program and began pursuing other opportunities.
Roberts said plenty of big schools came calling, but he chose Houston in large part because of the opportunity to play near his hometown in front of family and friends. He credits that decision with helping him grow and mature, both on and off the field.
“One thing Houston did for me was made me grow up as a person,” Roberts said. “As a kid, I was always used to being ‘that guy," with the spotlight on me. I wasn’t used to sitting behind anybody. It taught me how to overcome adversity, learn from it and respond in a positive way.”
Roberts says part of that adversity was dealing with constant change when it came to defensive coaches.
“I had four different defensive coordinators with totally different concepts,” Roberts said. “I feel like any defensive scheme that’s put in front of me, I can adapt to it, grasp it and do my job well.”
Roberts lit up the stat sheet with plenty of impressive numbers, but Herman says his impact goes far beyond the box score, from his willingness to initiate contact to his mental prowess.
“He’s just a ferocious hitter,” Herman said. “He loves contact. If you got tackled by Elandon Roberts, you felt it, every single time. The impact of those hits doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score, but he packs a wallop when he hits you. His play recognition, his football smarts…his understanding of backfield sets, formation tendencies. He’s a grinder in the film room, he studies it and wants to have every edge that he can.”
Roberts may be viewed as undersized by some, but he believes his passion for the game will set him apart at the next level. He also takes seriously the opportunity to have a positive impact as a role model for the next generation.
“The love I have for football is just on a totally different level than a bunch of guys,” Roberts said. “A lot of people look at football for the money you can make or the fame. I’ve never looked at it like that. I play this game for the simple fact that I love it. When little kids see you out there doing what they wish they could be doing, and you see how big their eyes get when they see you…I remember when I was that kid. The opportunity I’m getting now to be a part of this draft process is a dream come true.
“I was one of those kids, hanging on the fence, watching these great players play,” Roberts continued. “I remember watching (Kansas City Chiefs running back) Jamaal Charles in Port Arthur and just wanting to be on that level. Not for the money or anything like that, but just so I could have these kids looking up to me, to set a positive example.”
“I just love the game, and I will never disrespect the game. The hard work, everything…I feel like football is a life lesson,” Roberts said. “If it teaches you anything, it teaches accountability; how to create a team; how to be a leader. It teaches you to not put yourself in certain situations and to overcome adversity. I look at football as a blessing and a privilege.”
*Quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.