BEREA — If cornerback Buster Skrine keeps up this pace, rookie first-round pick Justin Gilbert will have a difficult time breaking into the starting lineup.
Skrine, one of the fastest players on the team, is off to a scorching start in training camp. After dominating the conditioning test with ease Friday, he made a series of plays in the first two practices over the weekend.
On Sunday, he used his closing speed to break up a deep post from Brian Hoyer to Josh Gordon. On Saturday, he tipped a pass that led to an interception and caught running back Ben Tate from behind to force a fumble.
Skrine even got into a minor scrap Sunday with rookie receiver Willie Snead.
The popular assumption is that the Browns will shift Skrine (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) into the slot as a nickelback, allowing Gilbert, the No. 8 pick, to become the starter opposite Joe Haden. Skrine wants to keep the starting job.
“I just feel like I’m coming out here and competing with myself,” he said Sunday. “Just trying to get better every play.
“Coach wants to make it a competition and that’s what me and Justin are doing right now — competing for the job.”
Skrine started 15 games last year, totaling 75 tackles, 23 passes defensed, an interception and a sack. He had the added responsibility of sliding into the slot in three-receiver sets. Playing outside and inside in the same game – let alone series – isn’t easy.
“Honestly, I feel as if they need me to play the slot, I’ll play the slot,” Skrine said. “If they need me to play outside, I’ll play outside. I think that it will be more of a game plan type of thing. Right now it’s really early so I really couldn’t tell you where they’re going to have me most of the time.”
Skrine, who’s entering his fourth season, will see plenty of playing time in either role. And coach Mike Pettine told The Chronicle-Telegram last week Skrine and Gilbert could share the starting spot to ease Gilbert’s transition to the NFL.
“Buster’ll end up probably swinging and playing both at some point, but for now, that’s his job outside and Justin’s got to beat him out,” Pettine said.
Skrine has grown from on a penalty-prone backup to competent starter.
“I feel like I’m going to get better every year,” he said. “I’m becoming a smarter player. Corner is one of those positions where you need experience to be able to play the position. Some of the best corners right now struggled their first year, or their first year playing, and now they’re in the Pro Bowl every year. So that’s just how it is.”
Guard Jason Pinkston wasn’t on the field for the second straight day.
“Pinkston’s unavailable to practice, and due to the circumstances I cannot comment on it any further,” Pettine said. “I want to give you more, but given the circumstances I can’t.”
Pettine wouldn’t answer when asked if the reason for the absence was Pinkston’s health. He said he couldn’t give a timetable for a return, then was asked if Pinkston will be back.
“It’s a possibility,” Pettine said.
Pinkston offered only a touch of clarity in a tweet.
“I can assure you I’m in no legal trouble & retiring hasn’t came up,” he tweeted. “As far as my situation I’ll leave it to them to explain — pink.”
Pinkston, who’s in his fourth year, missed 10 games in 2012 after a blood clot lodged in his lung. He was limited to three games last year after opening the season on injured reserve/designated to return with a high ankle sprain.
Hoyer looked much more comfortable and was much more efficient than Saturday, completing nearly every ball he threw in team drills. Saturday was the first time he had taken a full complement of repetitions on his surgically repaired knee.
“It’s just a matter of getting the repetitions with confidence,” Pettine said. “I think anybody coming off (an anterior cruciate ligament injury), it’s just human nature, may be a little flighty early with lots of big bodies flying around. I think he’ll only get more comfortable as we go.”
Pettine agreed with the notion Hoyer may have been too excited for the first practice as the starter in front of his hometown fans.
“He would have to be a robot not to be affected,” Pettine said. “There was a lot going on inside his head, but it’s a solid start for both quarterbacks.”
He said Hoyer will remain with the starters through Tuesday, then the coaches will re-evaluate the division of reps during the players’ day off Wednesday.
“I’m thinking that we will mix the groupings up, but it’s just still so early,” Pettine said. “We want to make sure we get things evened out so we get a good evaluation.”
Rookie Johnny Manziel had a rough day throwing and a setback in the wardrobe department. He began practice in blinding neon-yellow cleats – the new Nike VPR – but was told to change.
“I’m a black shoe, black sock guy myself, much more conservative,” Pettine said, adding that the players are required to wear team-issued equipment.
BRING IT ON
After two days in shorts, the Browns will put on the pads for today’s practice. Pettine can’t wait.
“I want to be able to hear the practice,” he said. “To me, you know when the pads are popping and we’re getting after each other.”
Pettine doesn’t have anything special planned for the first day of pads and won’t run the Oklahoma or Nutcracker drills. But an inside-run drill will increase the intensity and physicality.
“It’ll be let’s line up and see who can play,” Pettine said. “It’s more of a mentality thing. We want to come off. We want to block people. We want to get off blocks. We want to knock people back. If we want to establish that mentality, we have to do that drill.”
BACK IN ACTION
Second-year offensive lineman Chris Faulk is practicing for the first time in an NFL training camp. He missed all of last season after tearing the three major knee ligaments at LSU.
“It’s been a long two years,” said Faulk, who’s lining up as a backup right tackle. “I had a bad injury. It’s just a long process.”
He said he’s nervous, excited and thankful for the chance to put on the pads today and fully test the knee.
“Once you line up, there’s no turning back,” he said. “You don’t want to be embarrassed, so you’ve got to do what it takes to block your guy. Ain’t no thinking about (the knee).”
- Fullback MarQueis Gray was activated after failing the conditioning test Friday and returned to practice.
- Left tackle Joe Thomas rested. Pettine said it’s part of the plan to keep the veteran fresh. Martin Wallace took his spot with the first-team offense.
- Defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Billy Winn, tight end Gary Barnidge, guard John Greco, linebacker Tank Carder, offensive lineman Nick McDonald, receiver Chandler Jones and kicker/punter Jake Rogers didn’t practice due to injury.
- Rookie running back Isaiah Crowell switched from No. 30 to 34.
- Veteran inside linebacker Karlos Dansby took a couple of reps outside, allowing Craig Robertson and rookie third-rounder Chris Kirksey to play inside.
- The Browns broke out a zip line for the first time. Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant turned to look when two girls were screaming on their way down. It will be open again Friday and Aug. 13, and in Akron for Family Day on Saturday.