In USC's last four games, tight end/fullback Rhett Ellison has gained a total of four yards on five touches -- four catches for nine yards and a solitary rush for a loss of five yards.
He's done other things well, but, production-wise, his statistics are far off the pace the Trojans expected from one of two senior starters on the offense this season. Ellison, one of four team captains, has dropped a number of balls -- at least one in five of seven games -- and he appeared to drop a would-be touchdown in the second quarter of the Notre Dame game, when Matt Barkley targeted him on second down at the 10-yard line and delivered an on-target ball.
Two plays later, USC was forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal.
Still, USC head coach Lane Kiffin said Ellison has been an asset because of his blocking abilities.
"Well, Rhett’s played great," Kiffin said Wednesday when asked to pinpoint some of his struggles. "He’s had to play so many different positions that sometimes the timing’s a little bit off just because he's playing all those positions that he does. He’s very valuable for us."
Kiffin also refused to blame the Notre Dame drop on Ellison, saying a better throw would have resulted in a completion and a different defensive package from the Irish would have as well.
Ellison spent most of his first four years at USC as a tight end but practiced at fullback during fall camp when the Trojans realized they had less talent there than at tight end. But he struggled catching balls out of the backfield, so USC moved linebacker Ross Cumming to fullback, which has worked well. But Ellison's still struggling to catch balls from the tight end spot.
His blocking has been spectacular, as it was most of last season in his first year as a full-time starter, and Kiffin maintains his real influence has been impossible to measure.
"Rhett makes a ton of plays that nobody knows about," Kiffin said. "Our offense, there's no way we’d be moving the ball and being as productive as we are without him."
How, then, can USC make sure the timing is right between Barkley and Ellison, the Trojans' No. 1 tight end? Kiffin said he and his staff need to make sure they look at each package each week and find the best opportunities for Ellison to succeed.