BEREA, Ohio--There was a lot of head scratching during the off-season when the Browns failed to address the fullback position.
Both Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner were known as coaches who used a lead blocker in their offensive schemes from the fullback position. In Chudzinski's offense when he was with the Browns, Lawrence Vickers led the way for Jamal Lewis when he had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 2007 and 2008.
Last year, the Browns only true fullback on the roster was Owen Marecic and he was replaced mid-season by tight end Alex Smith.
There seemed to be no sense of urgency to add a fullback to the roster as none were drafted and none were signed during free agency, other than Brock Bolen, who was signed just prior to training camp. Bolen practiced Tuesday for the first time in weeks after recovering from an injury to his calf.
As training camp opened, Marecic and Bolen were the only true fullbacks on the roster. Brad Smelley was listed last year as a tight end/fullback.
When the first depth chart came out, Chris Ogbonnaya was listed as the starting fullback. There was some talk during the OTAs and minicamp that Ogbonnaya might be used as a fullback at times.
“He’s a very versatile guy," Chudzinski said. "He’s able to play tailback and run the ball. He can play fullback and he can block. He can pass protect and catch passes. He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things. Those types of guys you can find roles for and they can help you win.”
Ogbonnaya opened the preseason at fullback against the Rams and carried the ball once for four yards. He also caught a pass for two yards. He appeared to have trouble blocking some of the bigger defensive players, but Chudzinski said he was happy with his performance.
At 6-0, 225 pounds, Ogbonnaya doesn't have the build of a prototypical fullback.
"I was pleased with what he did and what he brings to the table," Chudzinski said. "He's not your typical blow-it-up fullback. He functions well enough. As he learns and gets better from a technique standpoint, that will help him.
"Obviously, guys like that can cut and find ways to get on guys and their athleticism helps them get on guys as opposed to just knocking guys over."
Ogbonnaya has accepted the challenge.
"Everything takes effort at any position on this field--there's a lot of talented players--but I think it's fun. I'm having a lot of fun doing it. It's a great challenge and I'm trying to accept it."
Ogbonnaya has demonstrated that he can be productive when given the chance. He was signed by the Browns off of the Texans' practice squad in 2011 after injuries to Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Thomas Clayton made the Browns thin at the position. He was signed just five days before he started his first NFL game.
In his two-year career with the Browns, he has 47 catches for 352 yards, while rushing 95 times for 420 yards in his NFL career with the Rams, Texans and the Browns. Ogbonnaya's best game as a Brown rushing was in 2011 when he carried the ball 21 times against the Jaguars for 115 yards, including a touchdown.
Ogbonnaya started the 2012 season as the third down back and was productive early on. He caught six passes for 73 yards against the Bengals in the second game of the 2012 season. When Trent Richardson was able to handle the position as a three down back, his playing time diminished. He finished with 24 passes for 187 yards.
He also seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff when he lined up incorrectly on a play and it nullified a touchdown from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon in the fourth quarter of a game against the Ravens. It remains to be seen if Ogbonnaya will be a productive fullback, but his versatility is definitely giving him an edge.
“Again, he is a guy that can play multiple positions," Chudzinksi said. "Sometimes it is hard to put those guys in two different spots, but that is just where we put him from a depth-chart standpoint. The thing about depth charts is that they don’t always tell the story about roles. There are a lot of roles on teams that you need that aren’t necessarily covered on a depth chart. A guy that appears somewhere on a depth chart as a third-teamer is the first-teamer in some sort of role or situation when you play a game and certainly Ogbonnaya is a very valuable part of what we are doing.”
His versatility is even more important with the injuries to Hardesty as he gives depth at the running back position, as well.
Ogbonnaya has the survivor mentality and if the fullback position can keep him on the field and in the NFL, he's all for it.
"It's always been important for me to be on the roster," he said. "It didn't matter if I was on special teams. I just wanted to play and represent my family. If fullback provides me with that opportunity I will give it my best.
"What I've learned about this game is what you put in is what you get out. It's a privilege to play, not a right."
More Bad News for Hardesty: It has been a tough training camp for RB Montario Hardesty, who has been out of training camp for the most part since July 31 battling a hamstring tendon injury. He returned to practice Monday and dislocated his right thumb early in practice. He did return to the field on Tuesday, but was absent Wednesday.
Chudzinski announced that he will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Thursday and his timetable to return is unknown.
"Montario Hardesty is going to have a knee scope," he said. "His knee has been nagging him for a little bit. This is unrelated to the hamstring tendon that had kept him out earlier in camp. He's going to have a scope on that (Thursday)."
Chudzinski was asked if he had any timetable on his possible return.
"We'll have to see on that," he said. "It's just to clean it up."
He missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury
Chudzinski was asked what he would tell Hardesty.
"You have to keep coming back and keep fighting," he said. "It applies everywhere in this game. He'll make it back."
Hardesty was already behind in the running back battle, but Chudzinski wouldn't say whether he could end up on injured reserve or possibly cut.
"We'll just have to wait and see when he gets back and balance that with the other guys and how they've done in the next couple weeks."
RB Dion Lewis and RB Brandon Jackson have been getting most of the reps with Hardesty out. RB Chris Ogbonnaya has been playing both fullback and the running back spots.
"They've been playing as Montario has missed some time, so Dion has had a really good camp and has shown what he can do," he said. "Brandon Jackson can run the football and it will be good to get Trent back out there. Ogbonnaya has shown his versatility in both areas, fullback and tailback."
LB D'Qwell Jackson missed both of back-to-back seasons with torn pectoral muscles and was asked what he would tell Hardesty.
"That injury bug is something that you can't control, but you just have to stay positive," Jackson said. "Once he has the surgery, he just has to stay positive and take it one day at a time. It starts with attitude because attitude helps the healing process and mentally help him get through it. I would tell him to keep good people around him so he stays motivated and with a positive outlook."
Hardesty rushed for 271 yards last season with a touchdown.
OL Joe Thomas thinks Hardesty can come back and help the running game.
"Hopefully, he'll be able to bounce back quickly," Thomas said. "He's had a few of these knee surgeries so obviously, he knows what the rehab process is about. We want to get him out there quick because when he was out there last year he did a great job."
Ward, McFadden No Go: Chudzinski said that although DB T.J. Ward (hamstring) and DB Leon McFadden (groin) are back practicing they will most likely be held out of the game against the Lions.
"We'll wait and see, but I doubt it," Chudzinski said of McFadden.
On Ward, Chudzinski said, "T.J. has been working all week and feel good about him, but we'll probably hold him (out) for the game. There's nothing wrong, but we just want to be smart about it and get him ready for the season."
Corner Battle: With McFadden out for the second-straight preseason game, CB Chris Owens is back to the competition with CB Buster Skrine for the right cornerback position. Chudzinski said he's looking forward to seeing what Owens can do in his first game action.
"I think both of those guys have shown a lot," Chudzinski said. "As I mentioned before, it's not just about winning one position, but showing you can play and we'll find a place for you. I'm anxious to see him back out on the field, as well as seeing Buster."
Injury Update: Missing practice Wednesday were P T.J. Conley (groin) and WR Jordan Norwood (hamstring). Chudzinski said both would be game-time decisions.
Faulk Scoped: OL Chris Faulk had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee that underwent ACL surgery. Faulk has been on PUP all training camp and might be a candidate for injured reserve. He was an undrafted rookie free agent signing from LSU.
"We'll have to wait-and-see," Chudzinski said when asked if he'd be put on injured reserve.
Nelson Time: WR David Nelson was one of the signings during free agency that seemed to shore up the wide receiving corps, but Nelson has been unable to stay on the field. He suffered an ACL injury in the opening game with the Bills last season and was taken off the active/PUP list the first week of training camp.
After practicing a few days, Nelson 'tweaked' the knee again and has been unable to practice since.
"He's improving," Chudzinski said. "He's getting better and he's doing more and more every day, so hopefully we can get him out here soon."
With half of the preseason over, the window seems to be starting to close for Nelson if he doesn't return to the field soon.