NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Elijah Molden was still in high school when then-University of Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake started teaching him the Huskies’ scheme. Lake received a call from Molden’s mother, Christin, saying the young defensive back had sketched out pictures of the defense he had learned and covered his bedroom wall with them like posters.
“This guy means business,” Lake thought to himself.
That’s the impression Elijah, who was taken by the Tennessee Titans in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft, often leaves on those when talking about football. After all, playing cornerback is the family business. His father, Alex, was selected by the New Orleans Saints with the 11th pick in the 1996 draft and went on to play eight seasons with the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions.
“It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to get to the NFL or else.’ But it was kind of just assumed that I would get here,” Elijah said.
Elijah’s path to the NFL was created in part by a great understanding of football passed along from his dad, who spent countless hours breaking down film and coaching his son from a young age.
Growing up Molden
Elijah is the second oldest of Alex and Christin’s eight children. Each of them was given a development plan. It started with gymnastics to learn balance. Then they transitioned to soccer to work on foot quickness and changing speeds.
After that, the Molden kids were allowed to play whatever they wanted — not just football.
“Just because Daddy played doesn’t mean you have to,” Alex told his children. “But if you do, I got the playbook.”
Elijah’s love for football was sparked early when he was able to go into the Chargers’ locker room with his dad. He got to hang out with greats such as running back LaDainian Tomlinson, linebacker Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison.
Watching his father run out of the tunnel before games to blaring hype music made Elijah want to follow in Alex’s footsteps.
“There wasn’t a day where I woke up and didn’t want to be a football player,” Elijah said.
He started asking detailed questions about football in the fourth grade. Alex wasn’t surprised because he could see Elijah’s passion and competitive spirit growing.
The next year, Alex and Christin allowed Elijah to play tackle football a year earlier than they had planned because Elijah needed that physical aspect of the game. His speed and strength stood out.
“I would get giddy,” Alex said. “[Elijah] was using stiff-arms, blowing kids up. He was having so much fun. When he put on the pads, it was just like me when I played. It gave him so much freedom.”
Breaking down film with Dad
Elijah initially wanted to play running back because he loved Adrian Peterson. But Alex encouraged him to play defensive back once he got to the eighth grade, knowing he could begin to share his knowledge and experience.
“I had to approach him,” Elijah said of Alex. “He’d never just show me. He was hands-off until I showed him I wanted to know.”
Alex wanted his son to think like an eight-year NFL veteran rather than an eighth-grader. Unlike typical fans, the two didn’t take in a football game in a few hours. Watching games turned into a four- or five-hour session.
“I would pause it after a big play and ask him if he knew why it happened,” Alex said of their film study. “I’d explain to him what the DB’s read was. You have to learn the reads and the keys. I would break things down like route patterns.
“When [opposing offenses] get to the 50-yard line, what are you thinking? I’m telling him, ‘They’re going to take their shot.’ When you get 3-on-1, what are you thinking depending on what receiver is on the field side? They’re trying to isolate. That really helped with football IQ, having him watch film and break down what the receiver or offensive coordinator was thinking. It’s all about tendencies.”
This is where the foundation of Elijah’s football knowledge was built, which impressed the Titans in pre-draft interviews.
“I think he’s been raised well. He was just really intelligent,” GM Jon Robinson said after the Titans selected Elijah in the draft. “He knew about our football team. He had prepared for the interview by watching our football team. He spoke highly of how we played and the effort and the finish with which we play.”
How Elijah ended up in Lake’s hands
Alex got to coach Elijah as his position coach at West Linn High School in Oregon. One of his proudest memories came when Elijah was only 14 and locked down an opposing team’s wide receiver who had been offered a scholarship to Arizona. When Elijah was a freshman, he got his own scholarship offer from Oregon, his father’s alma mater, after attending one of the school’s football camps.
Other offers followed.
When he was a junior, Elijah was offered a chance to visit the University of Washington and watch spring ball on an unofficial visit. Alex didn’t think the long drive to the Seattle area was worth it — especially since the school was a Pac-12 rival of Oregon’s. So Elijah and his mother took the three-hour drive without him.
They were blown away by the campus and the program, so they arranged another visit, with Alex this time. Everything changed for Alex after he met Lake. Suddenly, the idea of turning over the keys to Elijah’s success to his alma mater’s rival wasn’t such a bad idea.
“[Lake] broke down film, and the attention to detail was on another level,” Alex said. “Also, the success he had with defensive backs made me realize this was the perfect breeding ground. He coached in the NFL. That set off bells with me. Yeah, I would have loved for [Elijah] to be a Duck, but it was a perfect scenario for him to go there.”
Lake, who coached defensive backs in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2006-07, 2010-11) and Detroit (2008), sold them on Washington’s track record with defensive backs, such as NFL first-rounders Kevin King and Desmond Trufant.
“There was already proof in how we developed those guys, how they moved on and were successful in the NFL,” Lake said. “Alex knew a lot of the guys that I had coached in the NFL and those guys being All-Pros, one of which was a future Hall of Famer in Ronde Barber, so he respected the process.”
Lake, who’s now the head coach at Washington, said Elijah was one of his favorite recruits to watch on film. He loved Elijah’s physical ability and leadership, noting how the team would “sway with however Elijah was playing.”
Elijah’s inquisitive side came out as well. He asked detailed questions about the Huskies’ techniques and scheme. Lake was impressed that Elijah wanted to know what everyone around him was doing in addition to what his own duties were.
“He prides himself on learning every detail of the defense,” Lake said. “You could see that he was a football junkie. When you got him on the phone, you could tell that he had a passion for playing.”
Another Molden’s NFL journey begins
Elijah developed into a top NFL prospect, finishing with 153 tackles (seven for a loss), five interceptions, 19 passes defended and four forced fumbles in 36 games at Washington.
“With what I taught him and what Coach Lake taught him at UW, he was seeing things at a totally different rate of speed,” Alex said.
NFL scouts saw Elijah as one of the best nickel defenders in the 2021 draft class.
ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick jokingly referred to Elijah as the “Jedi of the slot” because of how well he played the nickel position.
“It’s Luke Skywalker-type stuff. He can see all of these things, but there’s never any panic,” Riddick said. “There’s a lot of chaos around him, but he’s in control. That to me signifies a guy who’s really dialed in to the game at another level. He comes from great bloodlines, and that stuff transfers. He’ll quickly adapt to the pro game.”
Making it to the NFL was always Elijah’s goal, but the rookie said he isn’t satisfied. For him, it’s time to make sure all of the hard work his father poured into him pays off.
Elijah’s message to his dad for Father’s Day shows how much all of the lessons mean to him.
“Thank you for letting me live out my dreams and always giving me advice, keeping things in perspective,” Elijah said. “When I step on the field, I can do what I do because of you, and when I’m off the field too. I appreciate that, and I love you!”