By Nate Ulrich
and Ryan Lewis
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns second-string running back Montario Hardesty needs to get on the field and prove himself to secure a roster spot.
The problem is Hardesty cannot stay healthy, and the clock is ticking. The Browns will host the Detroit Lions on Thursday night in their second of four preseason games.
Hardesty returned to team drills Monday after dealing with an injured hamstring tendon for most of training camp, but he left the field after hurting his right thumb during the first hour of practice. The Browns have held 15 full-squad practices since camp opened July 25, and injuries have forced Hardesty to miss all or part of 10 sessions.
In his post-practice news conference, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said there was no preliminary diagnosis available for Hardesty’s thumb.
“It’s a tough deal,” Chudzinski said. “But we’ll see what the status is and how soon he’ll be back.”
With his first rep in team drills since July 31, Hardesty took a direct snap from backup center Jarrod Shaw and was tackled to the ground near the line of scrimmage by undrafted rookie linebacker Justin Staples.
With his second rep, Hardesty took another direct snap from Shaw, but the ball sailed high. Hardesty jumped, reached above his head, hit the ball, bobbled it and caught it. He then immediately extended his right arm and looked at his hand.
A trainer examined Hardesty for a few minutes before taping an ice pack to his right thumb. About 20 minutes after Hardesty suffered the injury, he walked off the field and into the team’s facility. Hardesty, a second-round draft pick in 2010 who has been plagued by leg injuries throughout his career, was visibly upset.
“To see this guy work hard every day to fight back, to get back and for him to come back, it’s kind of like we’ve got to keep his spirits held high,” starting running back Trent Richardson said. “We’re praying for him. We’re going to be behind him 100 percent, and we want Montario to know ‘We’re your boys, we’re your brothers and we’re not going to let you down, if you’re out there with us or not.’ ”
In an interview Sunday with the Beacon Journal, Browns running backs coach John Settle made it clear Hardesty needs to show the new coaching staff what he can do during the preseason. The emergence of third-string running back Dion Lewis could decrease Hardesty’s chances of making the roster if he can’t bounce back from his latest injury. The Browns also have veteran Brandon Jackson behind Lewis on the depth chart.
“I think when you’ve got a group like we have, I think it’s very important [he plays in the preseason],” Settle said of Hardesty. “The thing that he has in his pocket is that he has shown flashes in the past. He has put some things on film that piques your interest, and then before the [hamstring] injury in this camp, he was doing those same things. But it’s always good for him, for any player, to be able to compete and be out there on the field day in and day out proving that they’re worthy of a spot. Unfortunately in this league, it comes down to roster spots and you can only keep a certain number. … It’s too early to count anybody out. Whether he plays this week or not, I think we still have two preseason games that he can have an opportunity to show what he can do, and then we’ll go from there.”
Chudzinski will likely wait until Wednesday to reveal whether Richardson will play in the second preseason game. Richardson continued to work in team drills Monday, but the Browns are being cautious with him partly because he was kicked in the right shin two weeks ago. He sat out the first exhibition game this past week.
Richardson reiterated that he feels 100 percent healthy and wants to play in the preseason. But he also understands that being ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 against the Miami Dolphins is the most important goal, so he’ll support whatever decision Chudzinski makes.
“It’s the best I’ve felt in a long time, even since college,” said Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft. “I feel ready to go, and when coach gives me that green light, I’ll be ready. And I’ll be in there for my team, and I’ll be working hard for them.”
At one point, Richardson even joked about his troublesome shin.
“I feel good,” he said. “I don’t even know what shin ya’ll talking about.”
Strong safety T.J. Ward also continued to work in team drills after sitting out the exhibition opener.
“I hope so,” Ward said when asked if he’ll play Thursday. “I’ve been doing a little bit more every day in practice, and it’s been feeling good. So we’ll see in a couple days.”
Backup L.J. Fort replaced starting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in team drills because Chudzinski decided to give Jackson a rest. Jackson plays the “Buck” linebacker. The other inside linebacker, in this case Craig Robertson, is known as the “Mack.”
The “Buck” calls the plays, so Fort got a day of practice as the signal-caller of the defense.
“Your adrenaline gets pumping a little more I would say,” Fort said. “It’s just a little bit of a different environment going against the [first-team] offense.”
Fort made the team last season as an undrafted rookie, but he’s not letting up now just because his spot on the roster is safer than this time a year ago.
“That’s how you want to attack every year, like you’re the underdog and you’re just working for the next best thing,” Fort said. “I want to be in the best position I can, so I work as hard as I can every day. So I make sure if I get thrown in there, I’m ready to go.”
Willing to move
Backup offensive lineman Oniel Cousins practiced for the first time since July 26, when a teammate fell on him, causing him to suffer a sprained ankle.
“It’s just a little sprain,” Cousins said. “I just had to be cautious with it. I’m relieved [it wasn’t worse]. It’s a part of the game, just playing in the trenches.”
On Friday, Chudzinski listed Cousins as a player who could move to right guard to bolster the depth there after projected starter Shawn Lauvao underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle. Jason Pinkston is expected to start in place of Lauvao to begin the regular season.
Cousins said he has played right tackle for virtually his entire career, but he is confident he could transition to guard if needed.
“We all got our goals, but it’s about the team first,” Cousins said. “Teams win games. One person doesn’t win the game. Whatever they want me to do, I’ll adjust to it. I’ll just try to do whatever I can to help the team.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.