By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
Chris Ogbonnaya’s versatility might be one of the most underrated weapons the Browns have on offense.
Ogbonnaya has sealed his status as the team’s top fullback after converting from tailback in the offseason, but his role will extend beyond one position, coach Rob Chudzinski said this week. With Dion Lewis likely out for the season with a surgically repaired fractured fibula and Montario Hardesty recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Browns will need Ogbonnaya to pitch in as a third-down back.
“Dion was playing well, having a good camp and he was doing a lot of nice things,” said Ogbonnaya, who the new regime re-signed for two years in March. “But the next man has to step up. This is what the NFL’s about. It’s an opportunity for people to come in and accept somebody’s role and try to excel at that.
“I’ll do my job. If that’s what I’m called upon to do, that’s what I’m going to do. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to get reps at it and do some third-down things the last few years.”
Ogbonnaya and running back Brandon Jackson are in line to serve as the main backups of starter Trent Richardson when the Browns visit the Indianapolis Colts at 7 tonight for the “dress rehearsal” preseason game. That means Ogbonnaya will likely juggle roles, which is nothing new to him.
“The more you can do, the better,” said Ogbonnaya, who played some fullback as a sophomore at the University of Texas. “For my skill set, being able to play running back and catch the football and then add that dimension to fullback, it can definitely help our team. It’s something that is very important for me. It’s a key part of our offense.
“I was recruited out of high school as a wide receiver. So I’ve always played a lot of different things. Whether it be high school and then college, I moved around a little bit, position to position. It’s a prideful thing. I want to be versatile. It’s definitely a good trait to have on a football team.”
The 6-foot, 225-pound Ogbonnaya isn’t a traditional fullback who smashes linebackers like a hammer hitting a nail. However, he has made some key blocks this preseason. In the second quarter last week against the Detroit Lions, he sealed a defender coming off the edge to spring Lewis for a 31-yard run off left tackle. Lewis then broke his leg in the third quarter.
“Obi’s been outstanding,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “I’m not asking him to be doing the things that he shouldn’t be doing. He gets to the target fast. He’s competitive, so he’s going to fight. We can’t have him going out and blocking 270-pound linebackers. We just have to be smart in terms of how we use him and then game plan.”
Browns running backs coach John Settle said Ogbonnaya has completely embraced “the idea of playing both fullback and halfback.”
Added Settle: “As a coach, you love guys like that, and you like working with guys like that.”
With starting right outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (knee) expected to sit out against the Colts and backup Barkevious Mingo (bruised lung) already ruled out, Quentin Groves will likely start Saturday.
Groves played for new defensive coordinator Ray Horton last season with the Arizona Cardinals and then signed with the Browns in March. His new teammates are eager to see what he does during extended playing time with the starters.
“Q has been a great addition to this defense and it shows the depth that we have on this defense,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “We haven’t missed a beat.
“Lucky for us, we got Quentin on our side. He can get after the passer and play the run, plus he’s an extension of Ray Horton. He didn’t bring him over here if he didn’t think he could get the job done.”
Tandem to watch
Starting strong safety T.J. Ward missed the first two preseason games with a sore hamstring, but he practiced all week and could make his debut against the Colts. Starting free safety Tashaun Gipson is eager for his partner to join him.
“Me and T.J. have been doing this since OTAs, so I don’t think that we’ll have to play catch up per se,” Gipson said. “I think it’s just about getting T.J. back in the swing of things, and he’s been out for a little bit. So it’s more so about him getting his body back right and things like that, but I don’t feel like mentally we should have to play catch up at all.”
With Lewis out, Chudzinski said free safety Johnson Bademosi, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and cornerback Buster Skrine are candidates to return kickoffs. Benjamin has already established himself as the main punt returner.
“I feel comfortable that we have Travis, and we’d really like to see the other guys, including Bademosi,” Chudzinski said. “Buster Skrine has done it before and has been effective at it as well. So I feel like we have some fallbacks. So really we just want to take a good look at particularly Bademosi, but any of the other guys that we have there.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.