CLEVELAND — Duke Johnson Jr.’s absence from the voluntary portion of the Cleveland Browns’ offseason program has given an opportunity and more practice repetitions to second-year running back Dontrell Hilliard.
Although Hilliard is behind starter Nick Chubb, recent signee Kareem Hunt and Johnson Jr. on the depth chart, he has made a positive impression on not only his position coach, Stump Mitchell, but also, coach Freddie Kitchens, too.
“I liked his versatility,” Kitchens said after Thursday’s practice. “I liked his versatility, his acceleration, his speed, his hands, his ability to make moves, cuts, avoid defenders. Dontrell is a good football player. He’s a special guy on special teams, too.”
Mitchell said before even taking the job as run-game coordinator/running backs coach, Kitchens let it be known how much he liked what Hilliard did for the team.
“All I know is when Freddie asked me to join him, he had high praises for Dontrell,” Mitchell recalled.
“He’s got to believe that he belongs, and I expect him to come out every day, we expect him to come out every day and make plays. What he has to understand is he has to believe in himself as much as we believe in him. Now, he’s getting an opportunity. This is huge for him, and he’s having a heck of a spring training camp.
“Freddie told me, ‘Stump, I really like this kid. He can either make it or break it.’ When the head coach feels that way about the kid, I know he’s got some talent, and it’s my job to do whatever I need to do to get him to change his mindset and reach the level that we think he should be at.”
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Hilliard rushed for 2,948 yards and 30 touchdowns on 558 career carries over four years at Tulane University. Along with the 5.3 yards-per-carry average, Hilliard turned 70 catches into 740 yards and four touchdowns.
In 11 games with the Browns last fall, Hilliard converted nine receptions into 105 yards.
“Everything,” Mitchell said of what he likes most about Hilliard.
“His mindset first of all that he belongs here, that he can get things done, his ability to run routes, his ability to catch the ball, and just being quite frank with him about where he needs to be mentally. He needs to reach the point where we see he’s at skill-wise, and I think he’s climbing that ladder.”
With Johnson Jr. not showing up for any of the offseason workouts and Hunt waiting to serve an eight-game suspension during the regular season stemming from an off-the-field incident last February, Hillard has taken the practice reps and made the most of them.
“He’s doing a heck of a job,” Mitchell said. “We’re down some receivers, so he’s played some receiver, which is making himself very valuable to this team.
“If Nick needs to be spared, Dontrell can go in as a running back, but we also now get the match up against the linebackers and against the safeties, so he can serve as a special guy, not only a No. 2 until that time, but also, No. 1 sometimes if we’re talking about on third-down situations.”