BEREA — Ben Tate has been waiting for this opportunity since he entered the league as a second-round pick of Houston in 2010.
Not only did he pull away from rookie third-rounder Terrance West in the preseason to keep the starting running back job, Tate will open the year as the primary third-down back after Dion Lewis and Chris Ogbonnaya were cut. That should mean a ton of carries, touches and playing time.
“It’s what I worked for all summer, all year,” Tate said Monday following practice. “This is what we get paid for, Sundays. So it’s exciting.”
Tate insists his mindset and excitement level haven’t changed in his first chance to be a No. 1 back. But those around him can tell he’s happy to be off the bench and out of the shadow of Texans All-Pro Arian Foster.
“He’s definitely excited,” coach Mike Pettine said. “You can tell he’s got a confidence about him. He does have a chip on his shoulder. He’s out to prove something.”
Tate made nine starts in three seasons in Houston after missing his rookie year with an ankle injury. He totaled 1,992 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 4.7 average.
He signed a two-year, $6.2 million contract to join the Browns in March, with $2.5 million guaranteed. The Browns have completely transformed their inept running game from a year ago — tied for 27th with 86.4 yards a game — and it begins with Tate.
“I know Ben has taken on the role of being the starting running back and run with it,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “From Day 1, he was clearly the guy that understood the offense the most, that was expecting the ball, was making the least amount of mistakes, the most amount of nice runs. I can tell he’s going to do a great job being the No. 1 guy even though he hadn’t been in the past.”
Tate, 26, never considered West a threat to take his job, but Pettine called it an open competition and gave the rookie snaps with the starters. West was indecisive in the preseason and averaged only 2.7 yards on 31 carries.
“Inconsistent, but I think it was good for him,” Pettine said. “There were some times where he made plays, and then he made rookie mistakes some other times. We’re pleased with where Terrance is, but it’s something … he just needs to continue to get better.”
Tate was workmanlike throughout camp, and carried 22 times in the preseason for 89 yards, a 4.0 average and a 1-yard touchdown run in the finale.
“For me, the preseason is not about the snaps, it’s not about the stats and really what I’m doing, it’s about how I feel right now,” he said. “I felt ready to go after that Washington game.”
Pettine said West could also get work on third downs, but Tate is the first choice.
“He’s been solid in protection. I think he does a nice job catching the ball,” Pettine said. “Probably the guy you can trust the most right now would be Ben.”
“Since I walked in the league from Day 1, I believed I could do those things,” Tate said. “It’s just unfortunate I was behind a guy who could do those things as well. So to me, it’s not anything new really.”
Pettine said it’s impossible in today’s NFL to have one back get the lion’s share of the carries, so he expects a committee approach. But new Cleveland coordinator Kyle Shanahan handed the ball to Alfred Morris 335 times in 2012 and 276 last year in Washington, which ranked third and tied for eighth, respectively, in the league.
Whether Tate averages 15 or 20 carries a game, the Browns appear committed to the running game. That’s a departure from last year, when they ranked 30th with 348 rushing attempts.
“Every coach wants to come in and give lip service to the offensive line and running backs and all the guys want to claim that they’re tough guys by saying they’re going to run the ball,” Thomas said. “When they say they want to run the ball, they’re not really telling the truth. With Kyle it’s different.”
“I would say last year we probably ran the ball once a game,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “I think this year is going to be different, so hopefully we’ll have some more balance. I think we will.”
Tate is joined at running back by rookies West, Isaiah Crowell and Glenn Winston, who was claimed off waivers Sunday. Fullback Ray Agnew is also a rookie.
“Shocking,” Tate said. “It’s funny because now I’m in that room with all rookies, literally, and I feel like I’m only five years in and I’m still pretty young.
“They look at me like this old guy over here. It’s definitely going to be an experience for me and I’m always going to be there to help those guys out.”