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Del Rio taps USC roots


Jack Del Rio forced Kennedy Pola to make a position switch in college from linebacker to fullback. Twenty years later, Pola introduced Del Rio to another USC fullback.

Pola, the current running backs coach at Southern Cal, talked up fullback Malaefou MacKenzie to Del Rio and the Jaguars, who selected MacKenzie as the team's final pick in this year's NFL draft. It's a pick that appears to have true upside potential.

"Great work ethic; intelligent player; a workout machine. He plays every snap like it's his last one. We have to tell him it's a marathon, not a sprint," Pola said of MacKenzie, who's in the second year of his position switch from tailback to fullback.

At USC, tailback is the premier position; it's a matter of tradition. And MacKenzie was "The Man" at USC until fate intervened in 2001, which was to be his senior season.

MacKenzie lost his father, Vernon, to prostate cancer, and MacKenzie struggled emotionally. There was concern for his well-being, as he returned to Western Samoa to attend to his family and the wholesale store it owns and operates. Football appeared to be at an end for MacKenzie.

"I wasn't sure. I began to miss it," he said.

"You always try to make your father proud. Not having his father there was tough on him," Pola said. "Everything about Polynesia is family-oriented. Family is everything."

Pola is in attendance at the Jaguars' mini-camp this weekend. It's a reunion of sorts for Pola and Del Rio; for MacKenzie and Pola, whose nephew is USC safety Troy Polamalu, the first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pola and Del Rio were teammates at USC from 1982-84. In the beginning, Pola was a linebacker. He was Del Rio's backup. It was either move to fullback or remain Del Rio's backup. Pola chose fullback.

Now, Pola and Del Rio are linked by MacKenzie, a kid with 4.4 speed and the kind of powerful frame that says "I can block, too." And MacKenzie's natural skills -- run a little and catch a lot -- are perfect for a fullback in the "West Coast offense," which MacKenzie learned at USC under head coach Paul Hackett.

"We didn't want him standing next to us on the sideline. He was one of our better football players. It created a lot of mismatches," Pola said of moving MacKenzie from tailback to fullback.

It was a move made necessary by the emergence of Justin Fargas at tailback during MacKenzie's year of absence. The USC staff successfully petitioned the NCAA to extend MacKenzie's eligibility one more season, and MacKenzie made a position switch that may be his ticket into the NFL.

"Blocking is the big thing," MacKenzie said of what he has to learn. His ability to block will determine his future.

"Fo has been very good. He's probably the most polished running back (of the rookie class). We'll see when we put the pads on if he brings that USC toughness," Del Rio said of his seventh-round pick.

MacKenzie is one of nine draft choices in this mini-camp, which turned into its second day this morning with what was clearly the Jaguars' best-looking workout of this mini-camp and the three-day April version.

"We're definitely seeing progress. It's crisper; the teaching is good. We have a long way to go but I feel we took a small step," Del Rio said. Clearly, he was pleased as he met with reporters following the morning practice.

Del Rio said wide receiver Donald Hayes did not sustain any major knee damage when he was injured in Friday morning's workout. "They had the MRI and there isn't anything that's going to require surgery," Del Rio said.

And, of course, the quarterback watch continues.

"I thought Mark was very, very sharp, until the last play. He's really doing a good job of leading the offense right now," Del Rio said of quarterback Mark Brunell, who was intercepted by linebacker Mike Peterson on Brunell's last pass of the morning.

Second-year quarterback David Garrard continues to perform impressively; first-round pick Byron Leftwich fumbled a snap from center for the second consecutive day, nearly had one of his passes intercepted by cornerback Fernando Bryant, and did little more than hand-off and throw check-downs.

"I'm not going to get bent out of shape on the second day," Del Rio said of the fumbled snaps.

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