Barber: Elijah Hood, Breon Borders united in quest to make Raiders roster

NAPA - This is not the film Breon Borders used to get recruited at Duke University, or by the Oakland Raiders.

You can watch the video on YouTube. It's Borders' final high school game, the 2012 North Carolina Division 3AA West Regional Championship, and the Statesville cornerback has a recurring problem. The problem wears No. 34 for visiting Charlotte Catholic High. The Charlotte Catholic fullback runs over Borders on an off-tackle handoff. He knocks Borders to the ground with a muscular arm shrug. He runs along the right sideline and, after Borders chases him down, jukes the corner three times before Borders dives to tackle him around the ankles.

“I hit him a few times,” Borders said. “He runs with a load, man. During high school, it seemed like he was the only one that was lifting weights. That's how it looked.”

The fullback was Elijah Hood, a high school junior at the time. Now the two have been reunited as rookies on the Raiders practice field - Hood as a seventh-round draft choice from the University of North Carolina, Borders as an undrafted free agent.

Less than five years ago, they were playing for prep glory. Hood remembers his coaches pointing out Statesville players who “caused disruption” during film study. One of them was Borders, the fleet, DI-bound cover man.

For Statesville, the mission was obvious.

“It was all about stopping Hood,” Borders said. “We had our best, biggest defender doing something differently than he was usually doing it, just for Hood.”

On one of the first plays from scrimmage, Charlotte Catholic ran a sweep to Hood with its Wing T offense, and the entire Statesville defense followed him - except it was a fake. The ball went the other way for a huge gain.

“Get you every time,” Hood told me with a laugh.

It was an omen. Charlotte Catholic rolled to a 55-19 win, and Hood rushed for 294 yards on 19 carries, according to

“Elijah, he was a beast in high school,” Borders said. “I mean, he's a beast now, man. But he was just too big in high school.”

In the summer of 2017, the former adversaries are on more equal footing. It's fairly treacherous footing, yes, but it might be stabilizing a bit. Both arrived at training camp as borderline picks to make the final 53-man roster. And both have stated strong early cases.

Hood is a powerful, 232-pound back who ran for 1,463 yards as a sophomore at UNC (his production declined when he shared carries as a junior), but he has been plopped into a crowded backfield that includes veteran Marshawn Lynch, fullback Jamize Olawale and last year's rookie hotshots, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. If Hood makes the roster, he'll probably have to play special teams to get there. Or perhaps he is destined for the practice squad.

And yet at a recent practice he broke free for a long touchdown run. As one beat writer told me, Hood was going against backup defenders. But no one caught him, and straight-line speed isn't supposed to be his strong suit.

Borders, meanwhile, was thrilled to get a call from the Raiders. But having gone undrafted, his position was even more precarious. Just to get quality reps in sub-packages, he would have to fight his way past players making way more money (Sean Smith, David Amerson, Reggie Nelson), guys drafted high by the Raiders (Karl Joseph, Obi Melifonwu) and other hard-knocks DBs who have already proved they can play in the NFL (T.J. Carrie, Keith McGill and others).

Borders set about doing just that, and has been one of the big surprises of camp.

“I just came in, put my head down working,” he said. “I made a few plays with the Threes (the third-team defense), I got moved to the Twos, I made a few plays with the Twos. I took the coaching that (cornerbacks) Coach Rod (Woodson) was giving to me, and my teammates. And I'm getting reps with the Ones now.”

Easy, right?

Well, not really, because most of Borders' work has come in slot coverage in the Raiders' nickel package. It's something he didn't do much at Duke. NFL slot receivers are quicker than anyone he's accustomed to covering, and they have more options in their routes.

“When I'm on the outside, I've got the sideline,” Borders said. “So I can kind of predicate how I want to play, and where I want to play. I know I got the sideline right here, and I know he only got this much space. In the nickel and inside, they got two ways.”

The Raiders released their first official depth chart Monday, and Borders is buried like pirates' treasure. But the chart doesn't reflect the reality of the Oakland defensive alignments. As Borders alluded, he has been running with the No. 1 nickel defense. It's cool that these guys are getting shots, because both are interesting young men.

Borders majored in cultural anthropology and business management at Duke, and he has an affinity for foreign cultures. He took African studies, Asian studies and an entire summer of Hispanic studies in Durham.

Hood has an even wider range of interests, and an active mind. As an information sciences major, he interned in the Legislative Services Office of the North Carolina General Assembly, which comprises the two houses of the state legislature there. The LSO keeps the operation humming. Its staff retrieves and disseminates information for the legislators, maintains the offices, runs the computer systems.

“Basically, it's all the stuff that keeps the building running besides, you know, the voting,” as Hood explained.

He was most interested in how the LSO and assembly were organizationally structured. But while he was there, he figured he might as well point out some other needs, like helping the state legislature start an interweb app, and encouraging the General Assembly librarians to document their practices so they're available for posterity when people retire.

“I'm a younger mind, I'm a millennial,” Hood said. “The way the government is set up, it's kind of archaic. They have things bureaucratically set up. They don't have people who just say things like, ‘Well, if you digitalize this, you could get this a lot quicker.' … I was like an in-between guy who could kind of connect these silos and divisions so they could make the information flow even better.”

Hood isn't sure his skin is thick enough for a political career. Anyway, he's got some football to play. The unofficially official start of that is Saturday, with the Raiders' first preseason game at Arizona.

“This is still a dream come true,” Hood said. “I get to play in a preseason game in the NFL. I watched these games as a kid, in college and all that. Now it's me. I'm out there.”

Elijah Hood and Breon Borders are just two more young athletes trying to beat the odds and make a roster. It's a story as old as the NFL, and as fresh as a summer day in Napa.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette