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Vikings: Grunt work pays off for Ellison

9/11/2014

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The noise -- a mechanical ker-chunk as Rhett Ellison slams his shoulder into the blocking sled -- has occupied a familiar place in the soundtrack of Minnesota Vikings practices for the last three years. The tight end makes a significant part of his living off the inglorious task of blocking defenders, and either before or after practice, Ellison is often all alone on the field, going over the steps of his dance with the sled.

"If you're ever out here early to practice, you'll notice he's the first one out here -- all the time," tight ends coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I think that's not an accident. I think that's something that, he's very serious about doing the little things, working on his techniques. You can't fake that. That truly is him."

It's been him since he was a kid, getting his first taste of sports while playing rugby in his New Zealand schoolyard and learning the game through football drills with his father Riki -- a former linebacker and three-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers. Ellison, whose great uncle Thomas was the first captain of the All Blacks national rugby team and whose rugby-playing relatives still tell him "football is for pansies," learned one of the secrets to the game is embracing its gritty side. He didn't think he'd be drafted until the Vikings selected him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, doesn't know that Pro Football Focus calls him one of the most underrated players in the league and doesn't particularly seem to care about the attention he's beginning to receive for how well he performs his arduous role.

Ellison seems to have found a perfect fit as Norv Turner's utility knife, lining up as a blocking tight end, motioning into the backfield as a H-back and breaking three tackles to turn a tight end screen into a 22-yard gain after the Rams' defense seemed to forget about him late in the Vikings' 34-6 victory on Sunday. He's only in the third year of his rookie deal, making just $570,000 this year, but Ellison's value to the Vikings might never have been higher.

"He's somebody that is tough, does things the right way, does the things that Coach [Mike] Zimmer talks about [as being] important to winning," said Stefanski, who's in his first year coaching tight ends after previously serving as the Vikings' assistant quarterbacks coach. "It's been interesting to see it up close."

The 25-year-old's catch on Sunday was just the 13th of his career, and his longest since his rookie season, but there could be more out there for Ellison in Turner's offense. He played half of the Vikings' offensive snaps on Sunday, after getting that much action in just four games last year, and is now working for an offensive coordinator who typically uses two-tight end sets more than any in the league.

"He loves using two tight ends all the time," Ellison said. "You're excited any time you have an offensive coordinator who's been in the NFL that long. You trust him right away."

Ellison's role as a blocker will likely continue to be a prominent one, though, and it's not one he seems interested in trading. He learned one way to play the game from his father -- who now lives outside Washington -- and was indoctrinated in the blocking sled drill by former USC offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu. Any other way of doing his job would be foreign to Ellison.

"It's just that whole, keep sharpening your tools," Ellison said. "You've got to stay up on that kind of stuff."