BEREA — The No. 3 cornerback almost qualifies as a starter in today’s pass-happy NFL. Offenses use three- and four-receiver sets so frequently, the nickel back can be on the field for as many as 80 percent of the defensive snaps.
Almost isn’t good enough for Buster Skrine.
“Everybody wants to be a starter in the league,” he said. “I want to respect the coach’s decision regardless if I start or not, but it’s very important to me.”
Skrine has made quite a push for the starting role opposite Joe Haden over the past few days. With his main competition, Chris Owens, sidelined by a foot sprain, Skrine took all the repetitions with the first-team defense, including in the preseason opener, and made an impact.
He broke up a touchdown Monday after Davone Bess appeared to catch it during a two-minute drill. Skrine kept fighting and punched it out.
On Sunday, he beat Greg Little to the spot on an out for a near-interception and broke up a couple more passes. That followed a Saturday in which Skrine matched Haden breakup for breakup.
“He’s been the same every single day of practice from the spring to now,” defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi said. “The kid just has a tremendous amount of energy. He loves to compete and he just gives it his all every practice.
“He’s been a pleasure to coach, because the guy comes to work and it’s all about football all the time. He just wants to get better. He just practices and leaves it all on the field.”
Skrine has been a convenient target for opposing quarterbacks and hometown fans. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound fifth-round pick out of Chattanooga in 2011 doesn’t have the talent or pedigree of Haden, committed 10 defensive penalties in 2012 and appeared overmatched at times.
The Browns signed Owens to a one-year deal in free agency and drafted Leon McFadden in the third round out of San Diego State to compete with — read: replace — Skrine.
But Skrine’s personality won’t allow him to go down without a fight. And he’s become a lock to open the season as one of the top three corners.
“He has really improved from the spring,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “He’s one of the hardest workers on the team and is a super competitive guy. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. You can see it show on the field.”
“I’m always looking to compete, challenge every route and do the best I can,” Skrine said.
He has played in all 32 games in two years, with six starts last season. He made 73 tackles and had 11 passes defensed in 2012.
“Last year I learned a lot,” he said. “I made a lot of plays, I made some mistakes. But I’ve grown as a player and became a smarter player. This year, I’m looking to do big things.”
Skrine knows he can’t have double-digit penalties again, and he has a plan to stop the yellow flags from flying.
“I’ve improved on finding the ball better,” he said. “Last year, I’d attack the man then look, which costs a penalty.”
Cioffi, who arrived after eight years in Cincinnati and two in Arizona, saw past the penalties when he watched film of Skrine after arriving with Chudzinski.
“He has all the tools you need,” Cioffi said. “He’s extremely competitive, he’s a tough kid, he’s not afraid, he’ll throw it up in there and he’s got tremendous speed and balance.
“All the other stuff, different coaches coach different ways and you can mold them to how you want them. But to have the natural ability he has is really what you’re looking for. And I was extremely excited to have the chance to work with him.”
Skrine lacks ideal height, but not the desired speed. He and receiver Travis Benjamin are probably the fastest players on the team.
“He’s quick, he’s fast and now he’s calming down,” Haden said. “He’s not just making quick movements. He knows that he’s fast, knows that he can get out of his breaks a lot faster than the receiver.
“If the receiver’s running a comeback, and Buster’s under control, he’s gonna get out of his break before the receiver. He’s being a lot more patient.”
Safety T.J. Ward was in every meeting with Skrine last season but couldn’t tell if he was affected by the pressure and criticism.
“It’s hard to say because Buster’s such a mellow guy,” Ward said. “He’s such a low-key person, but regardless of how he felt he came out and he fought every game, so I really couldn’t tell if he got down on himself.
“Buster, he’s a hustle player. He’s gonna scrap and fight for every inch and every yard and that’s the things you expect from him. I think on the technical side he’s gotten a lot better this year.”
Owens, who was limited Monday in his return to practice, had a slight edge on Skrine before injuring his arch Wednesday. Even if Owens wins the starting job, Skrine’s improvement from last year won’t be wasted on the bench.
But he would be disappointed.
“If he wasn’t that way, you wouldn’t want him here,” Cioffi said. “That’ll all sort itself out and the best guy’s going to play.
“Either way he’s going to be a major factor in our defense this year, because of his ability to play both the nickel and the corner spot.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.