#35 Javien Elliott
TAMPA — Javien Elliott's story, remarkable as it may be, isn't nearly over.
He was the long-shot walk-on who earned a scholarship as a senior at Florida State in 2015, starting six games and finishing with 37 tackles.
He was the long-shot undrafted rookie who left a tryout with the Steelers without a contract, but got a look with the Bucs last summer after playing only one season of college football and earned a spot on the practice squad.
He was the unproven player promoted to the Bucs' roster for the final six games of last season, holding his own with 10 tackles in a key role as the primary nickel cornerback.
And now, he's exceeding expectations again, holding onto the starting nickel job throughout the first week of training camp.
"A lot of people get so hyped in the story," the 5-foot-11, 176-pound cornerback said of his underdog role. "I don't get caught up in it. I just try to make it better."
Two years ago at this time, he hadn't played a snap of college football, but here he is, lining up every day with an NFL first-string defense. Elliott, 24, has the same approach to each practice that his former FSU teammate, Jameis Winston, has as the starting quarterback: Find a way to get better.
"Forget about the day before, and just come out here with the mind-set that I'm going to get better today," Elliott said.
Elliott was a scout-team player the one season he and Winston were together at FSU, but the quarterback respects how far his friend has come to overcome odds.
"To know his story and know his background, I'm proud of him just the way he has developed," Winston said. "Hard work is what sums him up, so hopefully he just keeps working hard, making plays and is the player that he is."
In Wednesday's practice, he recognized a route and got a hand on a pass, deflecting it to teammate Vernon Hargreaves for an interception. Late last season, he was promoted to the active roster after Jude Adjei-Barimah's four-game suspension, an opportunity that reinforced the confidence Elliott had as a consistent playmaker in practice.
"I wasn't only able to do it on the practice field. I was able to transfer it to the game field," said Elliott, who had 10 tackles in the last four games of 2016. "That made me comfortable, slowed the game down for me and it gave me momentum to this season. It let me know: 'I've been here before, so keep doing the same thing.' "
If Elliott can make the Bucs' 53-man roster, he'll earn $540,000 this season, more than double what he made between the practice squad and roster last year. He is following in the path of other undrafted rookies like tight end Cameron Brate and receiver Adam Humphries, surrounded by other improbable success stories.
A year ago in camp, Elliott was among the lowest defensive backs on the depth chart, so his repetitions in training camp were sparse. So was his playing time in preseason — he had only nine defensive snaps in last year's preseason opener, and only 30 total in the first three games. Holding down a starting job now means more playing time, which for him, means the opportunity to make mistakes.
"As funny as it may sound, you make mistakes and you're able to learn from those mistakes," he said. "Whereas if you're getting only a couple of reps, you're out there maybe twice a day. You keep growing and learning and getting a feel for the game."