HAMPTON, Va. — Meeting with a reporter at a restaurant in his hometown back in May, Elijah Conliffe doesn’t need to offer any insight or explanation as to how he landed around 30 scholarship offers to play college football or why the Florida Gators were especially excited to officially add him to their 2017 signing class.
That part is immediately apparent from his mature, power-packed 6-foot-4, 312-pound frame as he arrives. If anything, it’s hard to believe he’s only a freshman as he joins the Gators this summer.
Longtime Hampton High School coach Mike Smith offers a similar immediate reaction when asked over the phone what stood out most about Conliffe during their time together.
“Size,” Smith says with a laugh. “When he blocked a door entrance by walking in, it made it pretty noticeable.”
So yes, it’s easy to see Conliffe — ranked a 4-star recruit and the No. 18 defensive tackle nationally in this class, according to the 247Sports composite — fitting in at the SEC level and emerging as an asset for the Gators.
The key, his former coach says, is getting him to fully utilize those physical abilities — or perhaps the more appropriate term is powers.
Among Conliffe’s interests off the field is a fondness for superheroes, which he honed in on during what he calls his “toy box days.” His grandfather used to play him the classic superhero movies, and Conliffe would further indulge his creative interests with the morning cartoons every Saturday while later developing an appreciation for Japanese anime as well.
All of this is to explain the origins of Elijah Prime — like the Transformers’ Optimus Prime — which is the nickname that has stuck with the defensive tackle since his freshman year of high school.
“It tickles me because we can be out somewhere and you’ll hear them say, ‘Hey Prime.’ And then they’ll talk to me, ‘Hey Prime’s mom.’ It’s so funny,” says Conliffe’s mother Kachelle Brown.
True to the theme, Conliffe says he has two very different sides to his personality — on and off the field.
“So you got Elijah Conliffe, the normal me. And you’ve got Elijah Prime. I think there’s two different [sides],” he says. “Elijah Conliffe is a more calmer person. I’d say Prime is more of an aggressive person, a little more violent.”
Both sides of his personality have been key in his path to this point.
It’s an all-too-common story line for many top high school football prospects who grow up close to potential bad influences or around classmates on divergent paths.
Before moving to Hampton, Conliffe, his mother and his brother Isaac, who is younger by two years, lived in an area of Portsmouth, Va., that could be a little dangerous.
“I’ve seen a couple of my friends pass away and [get] locked up. I didn’t want to see that happen for myself. I know my mom couldn’t handle that if I got locked up or killed,” Conliffe says.
Not only was that not going to happen, but Brown wasn’t giving her children a choice about college, either.
“You’re going to college, that’s it. Plain and simple. And you’re going to stay on that straight and narrow,” Brown says of her message to her boys over the years.
There were moments that heightened her maternal concern — like the day she came home and saw two other kids, who she figured were gang members, giving her children a hard time — but for the most part staying on course was not an issue.
While Elijah Prime morphs into a different person on the field, Elijah Conliffe is an affable, easy-going and laid-back guy who would just as soon spend his free time at home escaping into the latest season of Dragon Ball Z (his favorite anime series) or playing video games.
While some of those aforementioned obstacles in his path are familiar to the stories of other coveted college football recruits, his interest in Japanese anime seems much more unique.
“I don’t know what it is [about anime], I really don’t know what it is,” Conliffe says. “It’s like it’s better than our cartoons. It’s got so many different themes and roles and the story line, it just gets to me. I feel so connected to the characters.”
He’s also big into video games, primarily first-person shooter games that he can play online with others. He actually connected with a Gators fan several months ago and started playing Overwatch with him.
“I ended up putting something on Twitter, ‘I’m playing Overwatch’ or something like that and he said, ‘Let’s play together.’ After that, we built a connection,'” Conliffe says.
Like a true Gator fan, Conliffe’s gaming friend has encouraged him a time or two to try to help Florida lure coveted quarterback recruit Justin Fields.
But for the most part, it’s another escape for the strapping defensive lineman. An outlet of contrast to his football pursuits, and away from any distractions that might otherwise get in his way.
“It just takes my stress away. I can pretty much escape from what’s really going on,” he says.
After all, it’s been just as incumbent on Elijah Conliffe to do his part and help set up Elijah Prime for the opportunity that now awaits with the Gators.
“I’ve got a goal and I don’t want anything to take me off it. Nothing’s going to take me off it,” he says.
Growing on the field
Before there was Elijah Prime, there was only Elijah Conliffe, and the aggression that goes along with being a defensive linemen in football — even at the younger ages — did not always align with his more natural mild-mannered personality.
Brown, his mother, says it’s been surreal to see him become a highly-sought-after recruit with programs like Alabama, Tennessee and Penn State also vying for his services before he officially signed with Florida.
“I remember when he first started playing football he was scared of everyone. He would tiptoe around the field,” she says. “… Just seeing him come from there to where he is now, it’s just like, wow. I would have never thought it. Elijah used to be just straight up and down like a bean pole, and I mean, look at him.”
Conliffe says he grew from 220 pounds to more than 300 during high school while continuing to work himself into the player he knew he could be.
Meanwhile, Smith, his coach at Hampton High, was simply pushing to bring out that aggression from Conliffe.
“I think one of the things he had to overcome early on [was] not being concerned he was going to hurt somebody because of his size,” Smith says. “I think as he grew up he was probably much larger than most of the kids. His freshman year when we had him he was probably 220 [pounds] in that neighborhood and just continued to get bigger. He got better and better. The thing he had to overcome, again, [was] just play hard and don’t worry about hitting the other guy.”
Smith has spent 52 years in coaching — the last 46 as a high school head coach — and has produced a number of future NFL players, including more recently Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Smith praises Conliffe as tough and very coachable, with good feet for a big guy. He doesn’t want his statement to be misinterpreted in terms of the defensive lineman’s potential at the next level.
“It’s very difficult for me to put this in words because he’s a very tough kid — he’s just got to turn the motor loose,” Smith says. “Sometimes he plays a little conservative, but he’s a tough kid. Doesn’t back down from anything and he’s got a good technique. …
“He wants to be the best he can be and he’ll be in the hands of people that are going to take him to another level. He’s going to do very well.”
As an old-school coach, Smith says he’s not much into statistics, but if he had to guess he’d say Conliffe had 10-12 sacks last season.
Smith said Conliffe playing conservative at times might have been due in part to his team playing more of a “reading defense,” as he calls it. And the defensive tackle was asked to play on both sides of the ball because of Hampton’s need for more offensive linemen.
At Florida, Conliffe will focus on playing nose tackle, he says.
“I like controlling the middle,” he says.
Conliffe is one of three defensive linemen the Gators brought in this year along with TJ Slaton and early enrollee Kyree Campbell, and there are opportunities on the depth chart with stalwart defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie gone.
Conliffe says he understands he has room for growth technique-wise, but he is confident Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph will get him where he needs to be. After previously being silently committed to Alabama, Conliffe said he clicked instantly on his official visit to Florida late in the recruiting process and knew by the time he and his mother landed back home that he wanted to be a Gator.
He says he owes his mother a lot for all she did for him as a single parent, and college football is only the next step in his grand plan.
Eventually, he wants to unveil Elijah Prime — which is also his Twitter handle — on Sundays and be in a position to take care of his family.
But the next stop is The Swamp.
“I’m very confident. I know that hard work pays off,” he says. “… I work hard. I keep going and going and I think that’s what going to make me a better player.”
Florida beat writers Ryan Young and Zach Abolverdi are traveling around the country visiting the Gators’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s NextGen series. Read his past 2017 NextGen stories at this link.