MANKATO, Minn. — The No. 40 looks familiar, doing many of the same things in training camp that the player wearing No. 40 for the Minnesota Vikings has done for so many years.
Only for the first time in 13 years, Jim Kleinsasser isn’t the one donning No. 40 for Minnesota. Kleinsasser retired following last season and his impact will likely be felt long after he’s gone. But it’s a testament to a rookie tight end that the similarities between a first-year player and Kleinsasser are so striking.
Enter Rhett Ellison, the fourth-round draft pick who shocked many during the draft when he said he didn’t expect to be drafted and was spending the day on the river with family. Ellison has taken Kleinsasser’s No. 40 jersey and is expected to adopt Kleinsasser’s former role as a tight end/halfback hybrid, a big-time blocker that can catch the occasional pass.
Even the players who played with Kleinsasser are remarking how much Ellison reminds them of the old No. 40.
“Not only does he work his butt off, but he’s got a little Jim Kleinsasser in him,” quarterback Christian Ponder said. “He’s tough. We watch him on some of those run blocks and some of his one-on-one drills against linebackers. He’s tough man. He’s got a little crazy in him. And great kid too. He’s doing really well.”
Ellison was drafted to fill Kleinsasser’s role as a blocker and have surprised coaches by the good hands he’s shown since the draft. He’s behind Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson among tight ends, but should safely make the Vikings and earn playing time behind the two starters. Rudolph and Carlson are strong receivers, but Ellison can carve out a spot as a blocker whether playing on the line as a tight end or in the backfield as a halfback or fullback.
As a senior at Southern California, Ellison started 12 games at fullback. He had been a full-timer starter at tight end the previous two seasons. But blocking was his forte with the Trojans. He caught a total of 53 passes while playing 47 games in his four years. Kleinsasser’s contributions to the Vikings over the years weren’t defined by stats. A second-round pick out of North Dakota in 1999, he only had 192 career catches, including just one last year. But he was the ultimate team player, doing the dirty work. He was as tough as players get, earning the adulation of fans and his teammates.
Ellison has a long way to go to match Kleinsasser’s accomplishments, but he too, is showing a bit of an edge in his game.
“He’s got a little angry side to him,” Ponder said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Ellison is wary of the comparisons to Kleinsasser.
“It’s hard to compare because he’s a complete beast,” Ellison said. “I don’t think there will ever be a tight end like that again. I mean, it’s a huge compliment if anyone actually compares me to him, but it’s a whole different level.”
The comparisons might be hard to avoid though. It’s tough to see the No. 40 running around on the practice field and not think of Kleinsasser.
Ellison isn’t seeking out the comparisons and is fairly reserved. But on the field, even in walk-throughs, he brings an air of competitiveness, an edge to his game.
“Rhett is a little different when it comes to preparation and how he approaches things,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “As I have said before, he is not your typical rookie in the way that he approaches things. He has a mindset where he is so focused and with tunnel vision like that, man, it’s good to see. But for his teammates and the guys that go against him it can be tough for them.
“He is not smiling, he’s not joking around. When it’s time to line-up and play, he is thinking about one thing, and that is football and annihilating the guy across from them. There is no three-quarter speed for him, everything is full speed. It’s good, it’s going to help our team and help that position as well. He has created some competition for us at that position.”
Frazier’s description would fit Kleinsasser as well as Ellison.
“In that regard for sure,” Frazier said. “I mean Jimmy was one of those guys who put the blinders on and played the game one way, 100 percent, 100 miles per hour. There were no periods where he thought it was half speed and Rhett’s kind of like that.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said he had to adjust some of the blocking schemes in the offense after losing Kleinsasser. Musgrave has said it could take two players to replace Kleinsasser. If Ellison is able to develop, maybe the changes won’t be as dramatic.
Ellison can also catch. Musgrave said he has better hands than he noticed while watching college tape of Ellison. Ellison caught two passes for 17 yards in the first preseason game. Both catches went for first downs.
“Yeah, at USC I was primarily used as a blocker and where they needed me was as a fullback last year,” Ellison said. “It didn’t matter to me if I was getting any balls. I just tried to catch anything thrown my way.”