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Ellison shows grit, wit at new position

The position of fullback is one of the most demanding on the football field, a spot for tough men who know they aren't going to get the glory and instead spend the majority of their time blocking and leading the way for others.

Trojans running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu played the position as well as anyone during his time at USC in the early 1980s, so when he talks about the newest USC fullback convert it would be wise to pay attention to his words.

"I call Rhett Ellison 'Da Machine,' " Polamalu said. "He's a stud. He is a collision waiting to happen. A hard worker. Smart."

High praise indeed for Ellison, a senior -- especially when you consider the relative success through most of his USC career: Nineteen career starts and a Pac-10 honorable mention in 2010.

He has seen spot duty at fullback before -- he even started two games at the spot in 2008 (including the Rose Bowl against Penn State) -- but it has been somewhat of a surprise to see him lining up exclusively in the backfield during the early days of fall camp.

It's no secret the Trojans lost a great weapon with the departure of Stanley Havili, and the only other fullback options on the roster are two true freshmen and a walk-on.

When you combine those things with an inexperienced tailback group that is missing its senior leader in Marc Tyler, and with the fact there are an abundance of talented tight ends, it makes sense to take a look at Ellison in the role. It doesn't figure to be a tough transition for him.

"Rhett is so versatile," Polamalu said. "He can play fullback, he can play tight end, he can block, and he can catch the ball."

Ellison has been open to the change and embraces the opportunity.

"The two positions have a lot of the same responsibilities," the 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior said. "A big difference is at fullback you need to know where the safeties are and pay attention to the defensive stacks, whereas you don't need to be as aware of those things at tight end. Plus it's cool to learn new stuff and to learn a new position."

Whether this will be a full-time switch remains to be seen for Ellison, who might continue to play both spots, but the coaches aren't too worried about that right now. They are focused on how this transition evolves.

"Rhett's staying at fullback for now," Polamalu said. "He's made a commitment to the switch, now we just need to see how he plays. I'll say this: He changed my meeting room the first day he walked in here. He's the first one in and the last one out.

"He reminds me of Troy [Polamalu, Kennedy's nephew] in that regard. He studies hard, he takes care of his body. He's showing my young guys how to work. He's really taken Soma [Vainuku] under his wing. He's taken all the young guys under his wing."

As Polamalu was saying those words during a post-practice interview on Brian Kennedy Field, it was easy to look over his shoulder and see Ellison and Vainuku in the far corner of the field. They were getting in extra work on the blocking sled after most of the other players had gone to the locker room.

It's not a surprise that Ellison has that kind of focus when you consider his family history. Rhett's dad, Riki, was a star linebacker for the Trojans (he played under the name Riki Gray) who was on the national championship team in 1978 and later was a teammate with Polamalu in 1982.

Riki was known as an intense player on the field, and that passion has translated to his role now, cheering as loudly for his son as any other father in the stands.

"Rhett is like his dad," Polamalu said. "He's a football guy, he loves the game."

Ellison has respect for his new position coach, too.

"He's an awesome coach," the soft-spoken Ellison said. "I learn more about football every day with him. My dad loves Coach Polamalu. He wants me to be around him as much as possible."

With all of his success at USC, it's interesting that Rhett almost didn't end up there, despite his father's legacy at the school. Rhett starred in high school at St. Francis in Northern California but was only lightly recruited by the Trojans. He eventually gave a verbal commitment to Virginia Tech.

Just before signing day, however, the Trojans stepped up with an offer and he immediately switched his commit. Now he is a respected veteran. He received his degree in international relations last spring and is working toward a master's in communication management.

"Rhett Ellison has progressed as much in his career as any player we've recruited," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "I think he's a guy with NFL capabilities right now."

Whether it will be at fullback or tight end in the coming year, look for "Da Machine" to play a big role for the Trojans in 2011.

Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at garry@wearesc.com.