BEREA: The rotating door in the Browns’ backfield is spinning again. Owen Marecic is out, Montario Hardesty is in and Peyton Hillis might not be far behind.
Hardesty returned to practice without restrictions Wednesday and is expected to start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Who will be blocking for him remains to be seen. Marecic remains sidelined following a concussion in Sunday’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. If he is unable to go, Alex Smith is the likely starter at fullback.
Hardesty went through a full workout Wednesday for the first time since tearing a calf muscle in his right leg Oct. 30. He returned to practice Friday in a limited capacity, but took part in everything on Wednesday.
“I want to get a full week of practice in and hope to be out there Sunday with the team,” Hardesty said. “It’s not that sore. This was my first time cutting hard and doing all those things. It felt pretty good. I’m ready to get back on the field.”
If Hardesty makes it through practice this week without incident, coach Pat Shurmur said he will start against the Bengals. That pushes Chris Ogbonnaya into a backup role after he has performed admirably the past couple of weeks as the starter.
Ogbonnaya has rushed for a combined 205 yards the past two weeks, including 110 in the win over the Jaguars. It was the first 100-yard rushing performance by a Browns back this season and the first in nearly a year.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Ogbonnaya said. “Montario is a good player and he was starting before I was. I think he’s earned the right to play and I’ve earned the right to be on the team. That’s all my main goal was when I got here, just keep my spot and help this team as well as I could.”
Hillis, who has already been ruled out for Sunday, made a surprising appearance at practice Wednesday. He was listed on the official injury report as a nonparticipant, but went through at least one foot drill with the other running backs. Hillis has been out since aggravating a hamstring injury on Nov. 4. This will be the sixth consecutive game Hillis has missed and seventh this season.
Shurmur didn’t rule Marecic out for Sunday yet, but a number of players who have suffered concussions this season have missed at least the following game. The Browns don’t have another fullback on the active roster, although tight end Alex Smith is a likely candidate and fullback Eddie Williams is available from the practice squad. Shurmur believes the stable of tight ends, particularly Smith, means he won’t have to discard the play calls that require a fullback.
Smith has played all over the field for the Browns, including playing fullback extensively in training camp.
“Fullback is just a whole different animal,” Smith said. “As a tight end, you play with your hand down, you’re on the line of scrimmage. As a fullback, you have linebackers with head starts running downhill at you. It’s just one of those nasty jobs. You’ve got to get in there and just know it’s going to be an all-day affair.”
Defensive end Jayme Mitchell switched from the left side to the right after the first game to make way for rookie Jabbal Sheard. Now he is shifting again – to the sideline.
Mitchell has been replaced by Emmanuel Stephens, and he isn’t at all happy about it.
“I don’t like it,” Mitchell said. “I was told my production wasn’t good enough. … I was paid to do a job, so I’m gonna do my job. I ain’t gonna pout about it. I disagree with it, but there’s no sense pouting about it.”
Mitchell, who has been dealing with chest and ankle injuries the past few weeks, said he hasn’t spoken to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron about the demotion. Shurmur and defensive line coach Dwaine Board told him his production wasn’t high enough.
“We felt like [Stephens] has been productive,” Shurmur said. “It was a coach’s choice to start Stephens. All those guys will be in there playing.”
Mitchell spent the bulk of his first four years playing on the left side of the line for the Minnesota Vikings. The Browns noticed Sheard performed much better on that side, so they forced Mitchell to move to the right side, a move he likened to learning to write with your left hand after writing all your life with your right.
“There’s a difference,” he said. “It’s gonna take time to get used to.”
Stephens went undrafted last year and spent the season on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad. He was claimed off waivers by the Browns a week before the season began.
“It’s a little bit of a surprise,” Stephens said of the promotion, which Shurmur announced on Monday. “I feel like it’s a big role to fill. If I just play within the scheme, play my hardest and fly around, I feel like I’ll make plays and do what I’ve got to do.”
McCoy doing OK
Quarterback Colt McCoy acknowledged he’s had lingering pain in his right shoulder for a couple of weeks now, but insists he’s not worried about it. After getting hit on the shoulder against the Jaguars, he walked off the field with his arm dangling and he fired his helmet down with his left hand in frustration.
He never missed a snap, although trainers were working on the neck and shoulder area extensively between series. He said he did everything asked of him in Wednesday’s practice.
“The shoulder will be OK, just general soreness,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was in the game. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a couple weeks. You get hit the right way a couple times, sometimes it just hurts. It’ll be OK.”
Sunday’s game is not a sellout and will be blacked out in Cincinnati. That’s not a surprise. The Bengals have been blacked out in eight of their past nine home games despite being in the thick of the playoff chase. If the postseason started today, the Bengals would be a wild-card team.
“Our fans are entitled to their own decisions and how they want to see the game, if they decide to buy a ticket or not,” Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga told Browns reporters on a conference call. “With how the seasons have gone the past couple years, we feel how they feel. We can’t tell them how the season is going to go or ‘Come to the game, we’re going to win this one.’ This city is due for a good team and some victories. The past couple years we haven’t been giving them that.”
Five of the Browns’ final six games will be against opponents from the AFC North. Given their past history, that might not be a good thing.
Since 2002, the Browns are 14-41 within their division. They’re 3-16 the past three years, including the crushing loss to the Bengals to open this season.
Most of the players in the locker room Wednesday declined to look ahead, focusing only on Sunday’s game against the Bengals. But Hardesty admitted he’s looking forward to how the Browns compare to three teams right now headed to the playoffs.
“I think it’s fun how the schedule is set up. Now there’s a transition in the schedule,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good defenses, it’s about to get cold, we’ll be running the ball. I think it’s a great time to come back and try to help our team because when the weather gets cold, you have to have a good, solid ground game. All the defenses in our division want to stop the run.”
Bengals receiver A.J. Green (knee) returned to practice Wednesday. He missed last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. … Browns safety T.J. Ward walked through the locker room without the boot on his injured right foot. He has missed the last two games and has been ruled out for Sunday. … Josh Cribbs is 52 return yards shy of becoming the seventh player in NFL history to amass 10,000 return yards in his career.
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