Greg Little is laying in the end zone. The second-year wide receiver, face up with his legs and arms spread, looks as if he is attempting to make a snow angel on a day when the weather is approximately 80 degrees and sunny. Seconds earlier, he would juke teammate Buster Skrine out of his taped-up cleats with an absolutely disgusting double move, leaving the lightning quick defensive back in his wake for what would be a sure-fire touchdown delievered beautifully from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. At least until the ball ricocheted off of Little’s hands, falling to the earth amid a flurry of audible sighs from the crowd in Berea.
Roughly eighty yards west from a sprawled out Little, rookie defensive linemen Billy Winn, John Hughes and Ronnie Cameron are driving the sled before releasing with swim moves and encountering teammates with a half-speed blow. In between the two parties, rookie linebackers James-Michael Johnson and LJ Fort join first-year linebacker Craig Robertson were running drills focusing on lateral quickness.
For the majority of the weeks leading up to this very moment, these relatively inexperienced players would be doing so in the company of peers in both occupation and age. Veterans practicing in Berea was not exactly commonplace. But on Sunday afternoon, Little had Ben Watson watching in the wings. Winn and Hughes were rejoined by free agency addition Frostee Rucker. Johnson, Fort and Robertson were alongside one of the team’s biggest leaders in D’Qwell Jackson. The age-based barbell shape of the Browns roster was never more apparent.
When I asked Jackson what he thought of the young, active linebackers that have stepped up in the absence of not only himself, but veterans Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, he hearkened back to his days of learning alongside former Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis, discussing the importance of both the physical and mental standpoints. Preparation for the unforeseen, the injuries (or in Fujita’s case, off-field issues) that can creep into the picture without warning, forcing players into positions which they had previously not considered. Jackson praised the young linebackers for their versatility not only between line-backing positions, but their willingness to step up right out of the gate and take on larger roles.
“They had a great preseason game last week,” Jackson said of Fort, Johnson and Robertson. “They rose to the challenge, and I was proud of those guys.”
Moments earlier, a proclaimed “100 percent” Frostee Rucker would say the same about the players who have stepped up in the absence of himself as well as last season’s first-round pick in Phil Taylor. Applauding general manager Tom Heckert for adding depth to a considerably thin area of the team, Rucker also went on to praise the growth and development throughout camp, calling them “ball players” for their willingness to take on different schemes from week to week.
“These last two weeks have really opened my eyes a lot, and I’m sure as well as the coaches,” said Rucker of a 90-man roster which has to be trimmed to 75 players in one week. “Those two young guys have really battled and they’re earning their way.”
Both Jackson and Rucker would go on to say that, while they had not been able to practice alongside their younger teammates for the last couple of sessions, they were undoubtedly leading by example when it came to film and any ancillary studying that goes on behind the scenes.
After all of the individual drills would finish up, the team would engage in some 11-on-11 drills with Weeden leading the first-team offense against Jackson and the first-team defense. Roughly three plays into the event, Greg Little found himself in the slot on the right side of the line with the cadence echoing through his helmet. Following the snap, Little sprinted 15 yards down field before cutting in, finding a tight window between a man-cover cornerback and the two safeties who awaited over the top. Weeden, once again, delivered the ball perfectly and, this time, Little would hold on for what would have been another sure-fire six points regardless of field position.
The sighs from earlier in the day turned to cheers and applause as the youngsters would provide even more fuel for a potentially brighter future in Cleveland.