Those who know Browns rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo have a lasting image of his infectious grin imprinted on their minds.
They remember him exuding charisma as he strutted through the hallways of West Monroe High School in Louisiana wearing Nike flip-flops with a Velcro strap.
“On our campus they became known as the ‘Mingo shoes,’ and I’ll bet you half of our student body had a pair of them,” West Monroe football coach Jerry Arledge said in a phone interview. “That’s the nice young man he is. Everybody that’s around him, they fall in love with the kid.”
They picture him laughing with his Louisiana State University teammates while playing pranks in the locker room.
“I put the ultrasound gel in his cleats,” said former LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. “So when he was getting ready to practice, he saw the ultrasound gel in his cleats and on his chinstrap. He thought it was pretty funny. He got me back the same day.”
They see him running around, throwing touchdown passes and having more fun than the kids during a series of youth football clinics this summer in Northeast Ohio.
“He’s always smiling and having fun and enjoying himself and enjoying life,” Logan said.
But there’s also a tenacious, relentless side to Mingo, and he’s on the verge of unleashing it.
“The way I played in college, I wouldn’t call it nasty, but it’s aggressive, it’s physical,” said Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. “Football is an aggressive and physical sport, and once you get out there, it’s a completely different mindset. I can’t really explain it in words. It’s just something that happens.
“It came naturally. Being a competitor, certain things happen internally or subconsciously. You want to win. You want to do what you can do to best your opponent, and that drive is what I think makes good football players good — the will to want to win, the will to want to beat your opponent. I hate losing.”
The Browns will hold their first full-squad practice of training camp July 25. Rookies and select veterans are scheduled to report to camp Friday with the rest of the team due to arrive by July 24.
Mingo has a lofty goal for his first professional season, so he’ll need to be all business as the competition intensifies during camp.
“I want to be a starter,” Mingo said. “I can’t control that. That’s a decision up to the coaches. They’re going to play the best players, and my job is to be the best player.”
Mingo worked primarily at right outside linebacker with the second-team defense this spring during organized team activities and minicamps. Paul Kruger, the team’s most prominent free-agent acquisition this year, and Jabaal Sheard, who has switched positions after playing defensive end his whole life, are penciled in as the starting left and right outside linebackers, respectively, in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multifront scheme. Mingo not only wants to learn from Kruger and Sheard, but he also wants to push them and ultimately surpass them.
“It helps me, and it also motivates me,” Mingo said. “I see how they’re doing it, and I see that they’re doing it right. Those are their starters. They are the starting guys. They’ve done it in past years, and they know how to play this game. Just looking up to them, taking guidance under them and just watching how they play the game and prepare for the game, it helps me out as a player.
“I definitely have confidence, not only in me, but the whole outside linebacker corps we have. We have guys that are very different. Paul is a hard-working guy. Jabaal is strong and physical. And we all have different styles. We all bring different stuff to the game, and I think that mix-up is going to be beneficial to us. It’s going to help us cause a little mayhem and just wreak havoc on those tackles and tight ends, whoever’s blocking.”
Adjusting to NFL
Mingo faces an uphill battle in his quest to crack the starting lineup right away because he’s converting to a new position and a different scheme while transitioning to the NFL.
When Mingo began playing football as a junior at West Monroe, Arledge, the defensive coordinator at the time, used him as a rush linebacker. Mingo then played defensive end at LSU, compiling 15 sacks in three seasons.
Now he’s being asked to rush and to drop back as a linebacker for the Browns, and he’s pleased with the progress he has made thus far. He displayed his playmaking prowess by batting down a few passes in team drills during spring practices.
“I think the position has come natural to me,” Mingo said. “Moving in space, dropping back in coverage, it feels right. It feels easy.”
Mingo’s former LSU teammates are in awe of his athletic abilities and have no doubt he’ll conquer the challenge of moving to linebacker.
“Mingo’s a very diverse player,” said former LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, a third-round pick of the Houston Texans. “He has a lot of athleticism. That transformation from defensive end to linebacker won’t be that hard. Coach says do something, you’re mature and you do it. I think that’s what Mingo will do. He’ll deliver.”
Mingo has resisted comparisons to San Francisco 49ers All-Pro selection Aldon Smith, but on the surface, they share similarities. After being picked seventh overall in 2011, Smith switched from defensive end at Missouri to right outside linebacker for the 49ers. He didn’t start as a rookie, though he compiled 14 sacks as a rotational player. Last season, he started every game, including the Super Bowl, and tallied 19½ sacks.
The Browns don’t expect Mingo to produce like Smith out of the gate. Still, they believe he’ll become an immediate contributor, even if he’s not a starter.
“How many rookies have you seen get 14 sacks in the history of the league?” Browns outside linebackers coach Brian Baker said. “There are guys going to the Hall of Fame who didn’t have 14 sacks as a rookie, so I’m not going to say he’s going to be that guy. But I think he will be a productive player for us in whatever role he happens to be. If he plays well enough to be a starter, he’ll start. If he plays well enough to factor into the rotation, he’ll factor into the rotation. I’m anticipating him doing well enough to do that.”
Like Smith, Mingo is tall and lengthy, but some believe he’ll need to bulk up to excel at the next level. Since he was drafted April 25, the 6-foot-4 Mingo has consistently weighed in at 237 pounds. He said he planned to report to camp at about 240 pounds. Smith is listed as 6-4 and 258 pounds.
Although Mingo is willing to gain weight, he has repeatedly downplayed concerns about it. He believes he’s “deceptively strong,” and others can vouch for him.
“He is strong now,” said former Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, whom the San Diego Chargers drafted 11th overall. “I will say that. Strong, strong guy.”
“He can hit,” added former LSU running back Spencer Ware, a sixth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. “He wasn’t the biggest defensive lineman, but he’s a whole lot stronger than he looks, especially with his arms and his reach.”
Leader in making
While he attempts to prove his new position and weight won’t hold him back in the NFL, Mingo will also be counted on to evolve into a leader. The Browns want him to personify Horton’s attack-style scheme on the field and to set an example for others off it.
Mingo, otherwise known as KeKe, should fulfill those expectations by all accounts.
“The way he used to get by people, it would just frustrate the hell out of the offensive tackles,” said former LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. “Without even touching them, he’d get by. You can tell the game is still fun for him. Some of these guys, it’s just a job, but he genuinely loves this game, and he’s just an amazing player and very humble. A guy with that much talent, you wouldn’t think he’d be that humble, but he is.
“He’s just a great guy. Kids love him. Parents love him. My mom is always asking about him. ‘How’s KeKe doing? He doing good?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s doing all right, Mom.’ He just left a great impression on people at LSU, and I’m sure he’ll do the same in Cleveland. He was always uplifting. He was always trying to have a good time. He doesn’t cuss. He’s the type of guy you would try to introduce to your daughter.”
Mingo’s former college teammates credit him for setting the tone in practices and workouts at LSU.
“The thing that stands out to me is his character, the person that he is and just the effort and energy he applies when he plays and practices,” Logan said. “Cleveland got a great guy, not just a great player and athlete, but they also got a great person, a guy that you will never have to worry about causing any trouble. He’ll keep his nose clean off the field and handle his business.
“He’s going to be out in the community helping the community, doing whatever he can do to help the team be better and help himself get better. He’s going to do that. To see where he started from, just to see the success he had at LSU and the impact he’s going to have on Cleveland, I’m looking forward to watching him.”
Mingo has yet to sign his rookie contract, though he has repeatedly said he expects to be in camp on time. He’s eager to begin a new chapter of his life, to prove himself, to show everyone why the Browns drafted him.
“I’m ready,” Mingo said. “This is what we’ve been training for since January, really, since we got done with the bowl season. I’m just ready to play football again. There’s a love that I have for the game. I like playing. I like being physical. I like being in the games. I just can’t wait to be out there.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.