By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
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BEREA: When Browns rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo was a basketball player at West Monroe High School, Cincinnati Bengals left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth treated the entire team to a celebratory dinner after it won a playoff game.
“Applebee’s, Chili’s, some place like that,” Mingo said Friday after practice. “They run together. They’re all the same. Same menu. Two for $20.”
Although Mingo is a bit sketchy on the details, he is certain how much Whitworth means to the high school alma mater and hometown the two Louisiana State University products share.
“He was a normal guy,” Mingo said. “He was easily approachable. There was a lot of hoopla when he came back [to town], but he was a guy that people listened to. He’s done it the right way, he’s been doing in the right way and my guess is he’s going to continue to do it the right way.”
The sons of West Monroe, La., will line up across from each other when the Browns (1-2) face the Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. The sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, Mingo is expected to start at right outside linebacker in place of Jabaal Sheard, who’s listed as doubtful with a sprained left knee.
So Mingo is in line to make his first NFL start and receive the most extensive playing time of his young career against one of his role models.
“It will be fun,” said Whitworth, a second-round pick in the 2006 draft. “During the game, you really don’t think about it. But after the game, it will be great to see him. He’s a guy I’ve seen since he was a young high school player, which just shows that I’m getting old. But I’ve been in his ear since he was in high school about being a great edge rusher. He knows that. I’m just happy for him and proud of him and will be excited when I get to see him.”
Warm, fuzzy feelings aside, Mingo, 22, knows Whitworth, 31, will present a challenge. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Mingo will try to use his quickness against the strength and power of the 6-7, 335-pound Whitworth.
“He’s massive,” Mingo said. “He’s technically sound. He’s a good run blocker. He’s a good pass blocker. He’s a Pro Bowl-type offensive tackle.”
Whitworth actually made his first Pro Bowl last season, an honor that Browns six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas thought was long overdue.
“I was really proud of him,” said Thomas, who befriended Whitworth when the two served as NFL Players Association representatives earlier in their careers. “Obviously, I think he’s been a great player at left tackle for a long time in the NFL. Sometimes it’s one of those things where it just takes time before people realize the good job that you’re doing.
“He’s very difficult to beat. He doesn’t have weaknesses really when you watch him. He’s so big and athletic. He’s just the prototypical size and speed and strength that you’d want for a left tackle.”
Although Mingo has played just two NFL games, he is receiving praise, too. After sitting out the regular-season opener with a bruised lung he suffered Aug. 15 in an exhibition game, Mingo has tallied five tackles, including two sacks.
“I told him he had the explosiveness and all he had to do was keep adding size and learn the game,” Whitworth said. “I told him from the day I saw him in high school, ‘You just have to worry about those first three steps because that’s what every great edge rusher has.’ He’s got them. He’s going to be a special player down the road. He’s already got two sacks this early in his career.”
Mingo, though, wants to show he is more than just a pass-rush specialist. Considering Mingo will probably be on the field on a full-time basis, the Bengals will likely test his ability to stop the run early and often.
“I can play the run,” Mingo said. “I played it good at LSU, and I’m looking forward to keep doing it while I’m here. If they want to run the ball, they can. I can’t change what they do. But it’s just my job to go out there and help my team win ballgames.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is convinced Mingo has progressed as an every-down player and can effectively handle the attack of Bengals running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
“A lot of that is just learning the defense and learning the techniques and getting better,” Chudzinski said. “He plays with real good leverage. That shows in his strength. He has some natural strength that he plays with, that type of leverage. He’s really improved. All parts of his game have really improved.”
Now Mingo will have a chance to prove it against one of the best. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis calls Whitworth his “rock” because he can always count on him.
And Mingo knows what it’s like to rely on Whitworth. When Mingo was deciding whether to leave LSU for the NFL following his junior season, he turned to Whitworth for advice and ultimately chose to enter the draft. The two exchanged text messages earlier this month and will always share a bond and a place they call home.
So who will the people of West Monroe root for Sunday?
“I’m going to say me,” Mingo said with a smile. “We’ll see.”
This much is certain: While Mingo perused that two for $20 menu as a youngster in Whitworth’s presence, he never thought they would go head-to-head in an NFL game.
“Looking back on it, I would never dream it would go this far,” Mingo said.
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.