As the Duke Johnson Jr. drama plays out off the field for the Cleveland Browns, running backs coach Stump Mitchell sees the situation creating a big opportunity on the field.
With Johnson’s future with the team uncertain, the team is in need of viable fill-ins for the first half of the season as newly-acquired Pro Bowl back Kareem Hunt serves an eight-game suspension.
Hunt — the catalyst in Johnson trade request — was previously cut by the Kansas City Chiefs after video surfaced of the running back involved in a physical altercation with a woman at a Cleveland hotel.
Nick Chubb is the unquestioned starter for the Browns, coming off a near 1000-year season, but behind him is a huge question mark.
Johnson would more than likely hold down the third-down duties if he sticks around — something head coach Freddie Kitchens has maintained will be the case. However, if not, the team will turn to second-year undrafted free agent back Dontrell Hilliard, who has made a big impression on Mitchell during the offseason workouts.
“When Freddie (Kitchens) asked me to join him, he had high praises for Dontrell,” Mitchell said at OTAs, which Johnson missed while mulling his trade request. “He’s got to believe that he belongs and we expect him to come out every day and make plays. I think what he has to understand is that 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 one heck of a spring training camp.”
Kitchens and Stump previously worked together with the Arizona Cardinals, and the Browns head coach has expressed much faith in him.
“I always knew that if I ever got the opportunity, Stump would be my running backs coach,” Kitchens said on the latest Building the Browns. “Stump is a great person. He gets after them and has handle and control of his room. I think you need that out of your running backs coach.”
Kitchens, Mitchell Have High Praise For Hilliard
Hilliard was acquired as an undrafted free agent by the Browns a year ago out of Tulane and spent the first month of the season on the practice squad. After being elevated to the active roster, he appeared in 11 games, did not receive a carry. He did catch nine balls for 105 yards and will be in the mix to return kicks.
By the way his coaches are talking about him, he seems destined for a bigger role with the team.
“Dontrell showed what he could do last year a little bit, but we had Duke and Duke had been doing it for a long time,” Kitchens said. “That is the whole reason we played three running backs. We felt like we have three running backs that can play football and could make plays. Dontrell will have a role in this offense anyway you can cut it, whether it is out wide or played wide receiver. You guys were not at practice earlier last week, but he played out wide some, played some receiver and plays in the slot. Dontrell will have a role.”
It’s the first year for Mitchell with the Browns, who previously enjoyed a nine-year career as an NFL running back, his career-season being a 1,006-yard campaign with the Los Angeles Rams in 1985.
His previous coaching experience as a running backs coach came with the New York Jets (2017-18), Cardinals (2013-16), Redskins (2008-09) and Seahawks (1999-07). He’s had four backs — Ricky Watters, Shaun Alexander Clinton Portis, and David Johnson — gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, while the multi-talented Andre Ellington produced 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. He sees that kind of potential in Chubb.
“I think all those guys are talented. If we didn’t have so much talent here, I think Nick (Chubb) could be a guy that could have 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards,” Mitchell said. “He’s that good and the system is that good. He can definitely do that.”
While Chubb will be the unquestioned leader, Stump can also see Hilliard carving out a nice role.
“Everything,” Mitchell said when asked what he likes 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. 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.”
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