BEREA: Montario Hardesty darted through gaps, changed direction with ease and broke off a few long runs Sunday morning during the Browns’ first training camp practice in full pads.

He’s finally healthy, and it shows.

“This is the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here,” Hardesty said. “This might be the best I’ve ever felt. I just want to make sure I continue to keep it like that and just continue to come out here and show up every day, and once we hit the games, show up every day. I feel like I’ve really got a lot to prove. I’ve got a chip my shoulder, and I’ve just got to go out and play every day.”

Hardesty has been plagued by misfortune since the Browns traded up to draft him in the second round (59th overall) two years ago. He suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during his first preseason game in the NFL and missed his entire rookie season. Then last year, he tore a muscle in his right calf in Week 8 and did not play in six games as he dealt with the injury.

At the end of last season, Hardesty embarked on a mission to do everything in his power to reverse the trend.

“I looked in the mirror and said, ‘What do I need to do different?’ ” Hardesty said. … “Last year was one of my worst years I have ever had playing football, just as far as how I felt, where my mindset was at and how my body felt. That was a learning year for me.”

He spent the offseason in Boca Raton, Fla., working out with about a dozen other NFL players, including Kansas City Chiefs safety and former University of Tennessee teammate Eric Berry, under the guidance of renowned trainer Tony Villani. The beaches of South Florida became their gyms. Hardesty often ran in sand twice a day to strengthen his legs.

“I was able to really go back to pushing myself,” Hardesty said. “Last year in the offseason, I couldn’t do any of that stuff. I really got back up to really being able to push my body and come back here in shape, getting ready to play football, not focused on being injured. I didn’t like how I played last year, and I didn’t like how my body felt. I just wanted to rev up what I was doing and come out ready to go.”

Hardesty also sought the advice of a nutritionist. He lost 10 pounds and now weighs about 215.

Quick on his feet

On Sunday, he displayed quickness some thought he might never regain.

“The first year you come back from an ACL, a lot of times you don’t have the explosion that you had before,” said Browns tight end Benjamin Watson, who suffered a torn ACL in 2004 as a rookie with the New England Patriots. “After about a year, it starts to come back. I think he’s getting back to his form. He’s getting comfortable. It seems like he’s trusting his knee a lot more.

“A lot of it is mental. When he tore it his rookie year, I went right to him and I said, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ It’s the worst thing in the world to get an injury like that when you have such high hopes of coming in and contributing your rookie year. To have to wait and sit out the whole year is very tough. A lot of it is trusting the knee, trusting that you can do the things that you did before, but a lot of it is physical. Everybody’s surgery is different. Everybody responds differently to the reconstruction.”

Noticeable difference

Browns coach Pat Shurmur has noticed a difference in Hardesty, too.

“He looks healthy and fresh right now, so I think that’s helping him flash,” Shurmur said. “That’s as quick as I’ve seen him. That was as good as I’ve seen Montario look.”

Hardesty is in a battle to become the primary backup to rookie running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Brandon Jackson and Chris Obgonnaya are his main competition, and it seems unlikely the Browns will keep four running backs on their roster.

Hardesty is determined to earn a significant role.

“I want to play and help this team win,” he said. “I know we drafted Trent, and Trent is a good player. I played against him in college. I watched him play in college. But at the same time, I’m ready to come out here and compete and play because that’s my mindset. I want to make sure I do everything I can to put my best foot forward and once it gets to Sundays and we have games, I’ll be out there helping my team win.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.