July 25, 2014

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Browns: Will Hillis, Hardesty split time at running back?

BEREA — For the first time in years, the Browns do not have a quarterback controversy.

Hardesty

Hardesty

Hillis

Hillis

They might, however, have some issues bubbling in their backfield with Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty.

When Hillis was unable to play in Week 3 because of strep throat, Hardesty made his first NFL start and rushed for 67 yards on 14 carries in Cleveland’s 17-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Both players were in uniform Wednesday as the Browns returned to the practice field, prompting coach Pat Shurmur to comment on their status going forward.

“What happened on Sunday, we learned that Montario is further along than I thought he was and can handle more than I thought he could,” Shurmur said. “Unfortunately, Peyton couldn’t go, but I do know that Peyton can carry a big load.

“Now, Peyton is our (primary) back, but we learned a lot about Montario that we all should feel pretty good about.”

Based on the events of last week, Hillis and Hardesty are expected to see significant action Sunday when Cleveland plays the Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Hillis hasn’t made himself available to the media since Sept. 22, when he was grilled about his impending free-agent status. He said he would take questions from local reporters today.

Hardesty, though, was more than willing to discuss Shurmur’s comments.

“I was sore when I got up Monday, but it was a good sore from playing so much in the game,” the second-year pro said. “That’s the kind of pain you want to have, and the kind I missed from not having played for so long.

“But today, I’m 100 percent and ready to go. Whatever coach asks of me, I’ll go out and do.”

Hardesty missed his entire rookie season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament. The Tennessee product logged 17 touches against the Dolphins, including a game-saving, fourth-down reception in the closing minutes, marking his most action since the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

“Montario is fun to play with and he’s fun to be with out there,” quarterback Colt McCoy said. “In the huddle — after a big run when he makes guys miss — it brought some energy to the field. That was refreshing. I thought he did a great job.”

So did many fans, who have been clamoring to see Hardesty get a bunch of reps from the moment Cleveland selected him in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

When Hardesty got hurt shortly thereafter, Hillis became the Browns’ featured back and rushed for 1,177 yards. On the downside, Hillis wore down late last season, which Shurmur has vowed will not occur under his watch.

“There is a lot of wear and tear on a running back,” the coach said. “If you have two that can go, I think using them is smart.

“Peyton has a bruising style as a runner and that’s terrific, outstanding. Then you saw Montario has got a little bit more vision, he’s nifty, that type of deal. I firmly believe that if you’re going to play good offense in this league, you need them both.”

On the season, Hardesty is averaging 3.9 yards on 22 rushes, while Hillis is at 3.4 yards on 44 carries. The NFL average is exactly 4.0.

But to a man, Cleveland’s primary blockers say they have great confidence whether power back Hillis or speed back Hardesty are carrying the ball.

Fullback Owen Marecic stressed that “they’re both such talented runners, all I have to do is get my (helmet) on somebody.”

Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas added, “They do have their own little kind of way of seeing the field on certain plays, but our job really doesn’t change because we don’t block anything differently, per se.”

Everyone in the Browns locker room also agrees that there is no such thing as having “too many” playmakers. General manager Tom Heckert and Shurmur often espouse the same viewpoint, but it will be interesting to hear how Hillis feels, given this is the final year of his contract.

“If we are doing the right things and gaining yards on our plays, then we’ll get more plays and everybody will get their (chances),” Shurmur said. “Out of all the things that can happen in the NFL, that’s a good problem to have.”

Contact Brian Dulik at 329-7135 or brisports@hotmail.com.