July 23, 2016

Partly sunny

Browns: Bruising RB Hillis impressing

BEREA — Browns running back Peyton Hillis got off to a slow start at training camp, but he’s more than caught up to his competition now.
The third-year pro, who had been hobbled by a strained groin, was Cleveland’s top offensive performer Saturday in its 19-17 preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams.
Hillis rushed for a game-high
51 yards on 12 carries — carrying Rams defenders along for the ride on many of them — and made two receptions for 12 more.
It was exactly what Browns coach Eric Mangini envisioned in March when he acquired Hillis from Denver in exchange for Brady Quinn.
“That’s the guy we were looking for when we made the trade,” Mangini said Sunday. “And those are some of the things that I really saw him doing. I think it was great for you guys to see some of the things he can do as a runner.
“Peyton gave us a spark and he showed he can play fullback, play special teams, play on third down. He looks like what he looked like when we played against him.”
Against St. Louis, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hillis looked like a beast, and gained fan-favorite status on his first home carry. The play only covered 9 yards, but it saw him break six tackles along the way.
Further endearing himself to the rain-soaked crowd, Hillis celebrated the run by screaming toward the stands while flexing his arm and chest muscles.
“It was just an in-the-moment kind of deal,” he said. “You know, I just try to go out there and do the best I can. A lot of guys helped out; great blocking by the offensive line and (fullback Lawrence) Vickers. We got some things going, but we still have got a long way to go.”
It’s clear already, though, that a healthy Hillis will push starter Jerome Harrison for playing time.
Through two exhibition games, Hillis leads Cleveland in rushing yards (54), yards per carry (3.9), and receptions (5).
Harrison, meanwhile, is averaging just 3.2 yards on his 12 attempts and lost control of the ball twice against the Rams — earning public criticism from Mangini following the contest.
“Peyton missed a little bit of time in camp, but we’ve seen that he’s a downhill, physical runner,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “Obviously, you can see how strong he is.
“I think we’ve got a great change of pace with our backs because Jerome is certainly very talented and can really get it, but Peyton does bring that element. He’s a big strong man.”
No one has ever questioned Hillis’ physical attributes, but his ability to stay healthy is another story.
The only time the Broncos trusted him to be their top back was after their first four players at the spot suffered season-ending injuries in 2008. Ironically, he stepped into that role in a game at Cleveland.
In six starts that year, Hillis had a 100-yard rushing game, a 100-yard receiving game, racked up 522 yards from scrimmage, and scored five touchdowns — then tore his right hamstring.
When Hillis returned to action last season, he was a mere afterthought to new coach Josh McDaniels, setting up his trade to the Browns.
“The good Lord has found his way to put me in good positions and helped me succeed in areas I need to succeed,” Hillis said. “I feel like this is a great opportunity for me, and I’m happy to be here. We have the ability to do some good things as a team, and I want to play a part in them happening.”
Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com