By Ryan Lewis
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Tashaun Gipson is in line to crack the starting lineup at free safety when the Browns suit up for their Week 1 game against the Miami Dolphins, but that’s not a situation that would have been easy to predict a year ago.
Gipson, an undrafted rookie in 2012, said Friday that had someone told him he’d be starting in his second season, he wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Now that he finds himself with such an opportunity, he’s not planning on giving it up.
“I come in here with my confidence on high,” he said. “If somebody wants to take this spot, they’re really going to have to work for it. ... With that being said, it’s a competition. That’s what camp is about. But at the same time, I feel it’s my spot.”
Behind him are rookie sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter and Johnson Bademosi, who have been rotating on the second-team defense between strong and free safety.
Gipson appeared in 10 games last season, totaling 33 tackles and intercepting a pass. He split time with Usama Young, who has since signed with the Oakland Raiders, at the free safety spot, which has often been viewed as one of the weaker points on the Browns’ defense in years past.
Gipson is determined to defy his doubters when the season begins.
“I just tell them, just wait until the game,” he said. “I know I got the talent to do it. It’s just all about going out there and proving everybody wrong. At the end of the day, I’m going to have my shot. After that, I’ll see what everybody’s saying after that.”
Gipson still lacks much of the on-field experience that a regular starter would have garnered, something that’s caused him to focus much of his efforts this offseason on sharpening the mental side of his game. Gipson views football as “80 percent mental, 20 percent physical.”
“Coming out last year, starting a couple of games, still kind of got my feet wet but I wasn’t mentally where I wanted to be last year,” he said. “I wanted to make strides this year. ... I wanted to come in here and show the coaches that I’m a valuable player and that they can depend on me as a second-year player coming into this league.”
He’s at least made somewhat of a positive impression on first-year Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. When asked what he liked about Gipson, Chudzinski noted he was strong mentally and understood what the defense is trying to do.
“He’s a solid player. He is smart,” Chudzinski said. “He works at it. He understands football. He has good football sense. He’s showing some good coverage skills out here.”
Much of his progress at learning the position could possibly be attributed to T.J. Ward, who’s entrenched as the starting strong safety. Ward, along with cornerback Joe Haden, has acted as a mentor to a young defensive backfield.
Ward feels he and Gipson have meshed well together in the secondary.
“We’re jelling real well,” Ward said. “I think we mesh well. We communicate well and we play off each other. We’re doing a good job right now communicating and setting the back end of the defense up.
“He’s very athletic. He’s smart. He can cover. He makes plays. He plays the back end, the deep half, the deep middle very well, and he’ll come down and he’ll hit you, too. So I think he’s very well rounded.”
Playing as a complete unit instead of four individuals is important for a secondary. It means being on the same page without having to pause. Gipson and Ward insist they’re comfortable with each other. When talking about playing with the other, even their words are in sync.
“I look up to T.J.,” Gipson said. “He’s one of the better safeties in this league. We just jell together, and I feel like it’s a good tandem.”
Back in action
Nose tackle Phil Taylor returned to practice after sitting out the previous two days with a calf strain. He participated in individual drills.
“We will continue to monitor and look at him, eventually upgrade as the time comes,” Chudzinski said of Taylor.
John Hughes still worked at nose tackle with the first-team defense during 11-on-11 sessions.
Defensive end Ahtyba Rubin dealt with a calf injury of his own last season that kept him out of three-plus games.
“You can’t use your legs, you can’t push off, you can’t exert power,” Rubin said. “It’s real difficult to do anything positive on that kind of injury. ... I just told [Taylor to] just listen to the trainers, whatever they got to tell you, and take it easy. They know best.”
Tight end Kellen Davis also returned to practice after sitting out the previous two days with a sprained knee.
Haden wrote on Twitter that Browns hall of fame running back and special adviser Jim Brown had some words of encouragement for him on Saturday.
“Jim Brown pulled me 2 the side at practice and told me to keep the great work! He’s watching!” Haden tweeted before adding two hashtags: “blessed” and “GOAT” [greatest of all time].
The Browns had planned on being in full pads Saturday but due to rain that hit Berea in the morning and early afternoon, practice was moved into the field house and closed to the public.
“I was hoping to get out,” Chudzinski said. “When I came in here, early in the morning, it was drizzling and I saw the forecast for the day. We had a lot of wetness on the field. So, it was a combination of the forecast and the fields all being wet and not wanting to tear those up.”
Chudzinski said the team plans to hold its first fully padded practice of training camp today.
Rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, practiced with an extended neck roll on Saturday, something that he never used while at Louisiana State.
“It’s new,” Mingo said. “I just felt it’d be appropriate.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.