The summer before Keith Ellison began his junior year at Oregon State he held an uncommon summer job for most college students. He worked for L.A. Federal, an armored truck company. As a 20-year old he was trusted with handling and bundling $100 thousand a day in small bills.
Since then no one has trusted him as much with their fortunes until now when the Bills will make him their starting weak side linebacker in a revamped and dramatically younger defense.
Fortunately for Buffalo's staff they had the luxury of an extended interview process which included seven starts for Ellison as a rookie. Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell feels very comfortable with the heady linebacker on the field.
"He was a consistent guy last year," said Fewell of Ellison's rookie campaign. "He was a guy that just went out and did his job and that's what he's doing again this year."
Ellison appeared in 14 games as a rookie including the season opener after Takeo Spikes went down with a hamstring injury. By week two he was making his first NFL start and one week later he tied London Fletcher with a game-high eight tackles.
Showing so much promise as a rookie, the coaching staff believes Ellison's play will take a noticeable leap forward in year two.
"I think he is making that jump because the knowledge is there, and you're seeing some of his playmaking abilities come out," said Fewell.
"He did an excellent job last year being a rookie and having to come in and play for us," said veteran Angelo Crowell. "He did well last year and now it is a situation where he is getting more comfortable with the defense. From year one to two that's where you become more comfortable in the defense and you can see a change in your game."
Before the first week of practices were even close to being finished at training camp this summer at St. John Fisher, Ellison led the defense with three interceptions, two of which would have been returned for touchdowns in game situations.
Even though he knows he's being counted on to play a starting role for Buffalo's young defense, he can't help but think where he was at this time a year ago.
"This time in camp last year I was third string and I was getting just a few reps a day," said the former sixth-round pick. "So there are a lot more things on my plate, but as far as putting in the defense it's all the same."
Ellison isn't taxed mentally when it comes to defensive concepts, coverage responsibilities and run fits. He studies very hard to learn it, but once he's absorbed it the information is on lockdown.
"I put a lot of time in," he said. "I do what I'm supposed to be doing. I think I have a very good retention rate so when somebody tells me something or I make a mistake and get corrected on it I try not to make that same mistake again. I think I'm just good at remembering information."
"We very seldom had to correct or get on him a lot a year ago," Fewell said. "So he's just taking off from where he left a year ago, and then he's adding on top of that."
And Fewell is adding to his responsibilities as well as he tries to find new ways to take advantage of the skills possessed by the second-year linebacker.
Ellison is getting reps in the team's nickel package. He's been lined up in man-to-man coverage in the slot. And he takes all of these added assignments and smoothly executes them.
Helping him in his additional coverage responsibilities is his background as a safety, the position he played his first two years in college at San Diego State and El Camino junior college before transferring to Oregon State.
"Playing safety for so many years before I moved to linebacker gives me a good understanding of coverage especially out in space because I've done it before," he said. "It also helps me out with my footwork too."
"I was joking with the linebacker coaches in one of our meetings," said Fewell. "We had a man coverage and Keith had coverage on a tight end, and I said, 'Why is Keith playing off the tight end?' The reason I asked was because during the season we'd let him go down and work one-on-one against receivers in practice like (Lee) Evans and (Peerless) Price and those guys and he would press them and fare well. I said, 'We've got to use his talents.' Keith has that experience and that knowledge so we need to use that. He definitely has benefited from being a safety in the past."
Ellison likes the idea of squaring up in front of receivers or backs at the line of scrimmage because they automatically assume they have an advantage in space on a linebacker.
"When you see a linebacker outside or covering somebody in the slot most people think you can't play out there," said Ellison. "I think that's a big advantage for me because I can go out in the slot and cover and do some different things that some linebackers can't do. So that should be to my advantage."
"Keith has a lot of skills," said Crowell. "He is a former safety so he definitely has the D-B skills out there even though he is a linebacker now."
Factoring more into the run front is what Ellison really focused on in the offseason. Playing at just 225 pounds last season he felt a little overmatched at times. So he adjusted his diet, boosted his calorie intake and successfully put on five pounds of lean muscle.
"I weighed 230 at my first weigh-in," he said. "That was my goal so I was pretty excited about it. Now the goal is to keep it on through camp."
"I think that's an area that we all have to improve on as well as Keith," said Fewell of his run front. "That's always a concern because we're not a 250-pound linebacking corps."
But what the Bills are not concerned about is what Keith Ellison can do for them in the scheme. They know already, and they're hopeful that the added time on the field as a starter in year two will turn Ellison from a steady player into a playmaker.
"I feel a lot more confident now in my second year than I did in my first and I'm a lot more comfortable in the defense," he said. "I'm trying to perfect everything."
"He definitely has a keen eye for the ball," said Crowell. "He showed that last year and it is evident this year as he is making plays for us early in training camp. That is what the coaches like to see."
And after 16 games are played in 2007 the rest of the league is bound to see as well.