BEREA — With three weeks down and three weeks to go, the Browns have reached the dog days of training camp.
Fittingly, Cleveland running back Montario Hardesty said he feels like a young pup.
“Right now, coming into the third week of the preseason, it’s still real fun to play football,” the third-year pro said, smiling broadly while standing on the practice field. “I’m taking it all in stride because I haven’t had this opportunity before.
“I feel good, and I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone for me.”
With good reason.
After two maddeningly frustrating seasons, the oft-injured Hardesty has been the most impressive player — and most pleasant surprise — on the Browns this summer.
The 6-foot, 215-pounder’s timing has been perfect, given his tenuous hold on a roster spot, coupled with the left knee surgery that will sideline rookie running back Trent Richardson until early September.
“I think Montario is responding well and running very hard,” Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. “There have been some times where there wasn’t much daylight, but he got us 4 yards. It was like he was thinking, ‘OK, there’s not much here,’ so he kind of sliced it up in there.
“He’s had some good hard runs and it seems like he’s handled the pounding pretty well.”
From the Browns’ initial practice through their first two preseason games, Hardesty finally looks like the playmaker that starred at the University of Tennessee in 2009.
Not coincidentally, Hardesty is fully healthy for the first time since his senior year with the Volunteers.
“It’s true, I finally feel like I’m back to where I was in college,” said Hardesty, who leads the team with 61 rushing yards and a 3.8 yard average per carry. “My legs feel strong, but they also feel quicker than any time since I’ve come to Cleveland.
“That’s the biggest thing to me, my quickness has come back, so I can show people what I can do.”
After being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Hardesty missed his entire rookie season when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in his only preseason game.
The North Carolina native made his pro debut last season, appearing in 10 games while rushing for 266 yards on 88 carries. Not only did Hardesty sit out three games with a torn right calf muscle, he dressed for three other games, but never got on the field — a clear sign that Shurmur didn’t have confidence in him.
Obviously, that isn’t the case anymore.
After Hardesty fumbled on the first snap of the game Thursday in Green Bay — setting up a Packers touchdown just 48 seconds later — he went right back in. Shurmur promptly called handoffs to him on six of the next eight plays, which Hardesty turned into 35 yards and a field goal by Browns kicker Phil Dawson.
“I didn’t let it bother me, but I felt I owed the offense after the Packers went right down and scored,” said Hardesty, who fumbled once in 102 touches last season. “Nobody got down on me or anything like that. I just moved on to the next play and tried my best to make up for it.”
He added with a chuckle, “I hadn’t fumbled the ball (like that) since I was in high school, so the timing wasn’t the best. But everything turned out all right.”
It truly was a win-win situation as Cleveland beat Green Bay 35-10 to remain unbeaten in exhibition play, while Hardesty strengthened his hold on the backup running back job.
Barring an injury or trade, Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya and Adonis Thomas are now fighting for no more than two spots behind top draftee Richardson and Hardesty.
“I can’t wait for the regular season to start (Sept. 9 against the Eagles) because I can tell we’re a completely different team from last year,” Hardesty said. “We’ve been practicing great, a lot of guys are providing leadership, and everybody here wants to win.
“That’s why it’s not surprising how well we’ve played so far. I think we can keep it up.”
The Browns released backup kicker Jeff Wolfert, whose 45-yard field goal with 28 seconds remaining gave them a 19-17 victory at Detroit on Aug. 10.
Wolfert was 3-for-3 on extra points and 2-for-3 on field goals this preseason, ranking second on the team with nine points.
The 26-year-old Missouri product had no chance to beat out Phil Dawson for a roster spot, but was impressive in his second straight camp appearance with Cleveland.
By releasing Wolfert now, the Browns gave him an opportunity to compete for a job elsewhere.
Cleveland’s roster currently stands at 89 players. It must be reduced to 75 by Aug. 27.
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.