BEREA — The quarterback competition between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel is the primary storyline at Browns training camp.
The most explosive position battle? That might just be the duel between running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West.
Fifth-year pro Tate and rookie West have exchanged pointed comments through the media — refusing to acknowledge each other by name — in unfiltered outbursts of emotion.
“I think it’s funny, but I also think that’s what all our guys would say if you asked them,” Cleveland running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said Monday following practice.
“For Ben, if that’s the way he’s going to motivate himself to win a job, good for him. I’ve seen Terrance say some of the same things. Whatever is going to get you fired up and give me 100 percent when you come out here, I love it.”
Montgomery is supremely qualified to assess the situation, having retired in 1985 as the Philadelphia Eagles’ career rushing leader with 6,538 yards.
The two-time All-NFL honoree also has 17 years of assistant coaching experience, tutoring Pro Bowl running backs in Baltimore (Ray Rice, Le’Ron McClain, Vonta Leach) and St. Louis (Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson).
“It’s a little different here, but this is the first time I’ve had (depth) this good as a running backs coach,” Montgomery said. “Everybody is fighting to be a Pro Bowl back, fighting to be a starter, so it has led to great competition. And it’s not just competition between Ben Tate and Terrance. All of them are in competition.”
While Edwin Baker, Chris Ogbonnaya, Isaiah Crowell and Dion Lewis are fighting for roster spots, they are not realistic options to win the starting job.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer signed Tate to a two-year, $6.2 million contract March 16, then grabbed West in the third round of the NFL Draft two months later. Both players are 5-foot-10, weigh between 220-225 pounds and desperately want to earn a spot on the first-team offense.
“We all know talk is cheap, but right now, Ben is the guy,” Montgomery said. “We brought in Ben Tate to be our starter, but we also targeted West as someone we liked, and we got him, too. When you have a situation like this, it kind of sorts itself out.”
West scored an NCAA FCS-record 41 touchdowns last fall for Towson, carrying the ball a whopping 413 times for 2,590 yards. He also set the FCS career mark with 516 points, but doesn’t view the step up in competition as a concern.
“The players, it’s not a big difference,” he said. “It’s just learning the playbook here, learning the formations of the defense and everything like that. Everything is just faster.”
While West was dominating the Colonial Athletic Association, Tate piled up five 100-yard rushing performances in nine starts for the Houston Texans as Arian Foster’s fill-in.
Through three training camp practices, seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas believes that NFL experience gives Tate an edge.
“He’s a guy that’s proven it on the field, who has gone out there on Sundays and had 100-yard rushing games,” Thomas said. “Ben has done it against great defenses, so we’d expect him to have great confidence that he is going to come in here and be the No. 1 running back.”
Tate, who rushed for 1,992 yards in 40 games with Houston, said he isn’t taking anything for granted. The Auburn graduate also isn’t talking about West, except in general terms.
“So far in this camp, there hasn’t been anyone that’s really stood out to me, but those guys as a unit are coming together,” he said.
“Dion is coming back off his injury and is looking pretty good. Crowell, who no one is talking about, is having a good last couple days. Ogbonnaya has been doing well, Baker has been doing well. This room definitely looks a lot better than the room y’all had last year.”
On that point, everyone in Cleveland will agree.
Willis McGahee led the team with just 377 rushing yards in 2013, while Fozzy Whittaker made two starts in the backfield. The Browns used seven running backs in all, with Ogbonnaya the only one to average 4.0 yards per carry.
Cleveland’s current group looks much better on paper, which is why Montgomery isn’t concerned about what Tate and West are telling reporters.
“I think all our guys have that chip on their shoulder, but the thing I like is we have no one with big heads,” Montgomery said. “You can work with these guys. The talent is here, so it’s all about playing together for a full 60 minutes. From my perspective, all my guys are doing great things right now.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.