By: Will Burge
After former Cleveland Browns running back and fan favorite Peyton Hillis agreed to a 1 year $3 Million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, attention immediately turned towards the draft and Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
While the Browns may go after Richardson on April 26th, the immediate concern is the clear lack of a starting running back on the roster. Chris Ogbonnaya played well in spurts last season but he does not seem to be the answer as an every down back. Brandon Jackson, who the Browns signed last off season, missed all of 2011 with turf toe and has never been a full-time starter.
The real question mark in the Browns’ backfield, however, is Montario Hardesty.
Browns’ GM Tom Heckert traded up into the second round two years ago to grab the back out of Tennessee despite an injury history. Hardesty tore his ACL in training camp forcing him to miss his entire rookie campaign. He then had a calf injury which forced him to miss significant time in 2011.
I caught up with Hardesty about twenty minutes after the Hillis news broke and he was in very good spirits. He was excited about the opportunity in front of him but also had kind words for Hillis.
“First of all, Peyton (Hillis) was my boy so I hope Peyton has luck in Kansas City. He is definitely a good football player,” said Hardesty.
He added, “I’m just excited about being able to come out with the Browns being healthy. Healthy going into the offseason, I am healthy now, and just being able to train. I just want to come back and compete and play well next year. I’m ready to get back.”
I asked Montario if he had been healthy through an offseason in recent memory to prepare his body for the NFL.
“Not since I’ve been in Cleveland,” said Hardesty. “When I first came to Cleveland I was healthy. Then I tore my ACL my rookie year and I was basically rehabbing all last year. Then we had the lockout so I had to go rehab elsewhere and that kind of slowed (the recovery) down. Last year was all rehab.”
Fans have been quite hard on Montario due to his lack of production, but he wanted to make it quite clear that while he is excited about the opportunity, he does not feel he is entitled to a starting role.
“I am going to earn it. I have been waiting for my opportunity to earn what I do,” said Hardesty.
He added, “I am always excited about going out and playing football. It’s great to have my job be something that I love to do. I’m excited about getting back on the football field and competing with the running backs that we have and coming out and having a good season.”
While the confidence from the fan base has wavered, Montario does not believe that the organization has lost confidence in him.
“We got our exit physicals (at the end of 2011) and everyone was excited about what we have to do coming into this year and how the coaches feel about me and the things I can do,” said Hardesty. “I just have to build on that. I’ve got confidence from them but for me it’s just about going out and doing it.”
All the confidence in the world will not stop the Browns from drafting a running back, however. It could be as early as the No. 4 pick or as late as the 5th or 6th round, but they will most likely take a back somewhere in the draft. Would Montario welcome the challenge of competing with a rookie?
“Oh definitely. I feel like everyone gets better with competition. I feel like competing is going to bring out the best in everyone,” said Hardesty.
He added, “I’m ready to come into camp and compete with whoever we have. I’m ready to get back into this offense. I already know coach Shurmur’s offense.”
The very same fans that have turned on Montario, however, are the very same fans that he admires and says the team needs moving forward.
“I think we have the best fans in the NFL,” said Hardesty. “Our fans are just as passionate as we are about winning.”
He added, “Stay with us and we will definitely produce some better results than we did last year.”
The fans are hoping and praying that is the case. 4-12 was a tough season for people in Cleveland to swallow and now the Browns seem intent on not making any “major” moves during free agency.
If Hardesty were able to come back healthy and be the type of back that Tom Heckert thought he was drafted, it would be like a free agent signing that no one expected.
The fans of Cleveland need something to grab on to right now. They need a glimmer of hope. Montario thinks that glimmer is coming this season.
“I can’t wait to get out there and help the Cleveland Browns get more (wins) this year because that’s what we definitely need,” said Hardesty.
Now that is statement the fans can get behind. It is time for Hardesty to back it up.
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