Browns RB coach high on 'Duke,' disturbed by injuries

On Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend, Duke Johnson’s position coach shared a slice of Canton from the rookie runner’s résumé.

“In my scouting report,” said Wilbert Montgomery, a former All-Pro who is in charge of the Browns’ running backs, “I wrote up Duke as a Thurman Thomas type.”

That’s a mouthful. En route to the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2007, Thomas produced 12,074 rushing yards, 4,458 rushing yards and 79 touchdowns. He helped the Bills reach four Super Bowls.

The trouble for Thomas was that Buffalo lost all four Super Bowls. The problem with Johnson is that he has been out since Aug. 1 with a hamstring injury and still isn’t back, and he is ruled out of Thursday’s preseason opener against Washington.

Still, the Browns are leaving the door wide open for “The Duke” — a rookie Round 3 pick out of Miami (Florida) — to move past 2014 contributors Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

And forget about the Browns being all about “running back by committee.”

“I don’t want to get into it like we had to last year, rotating,” said Montgomery, who once racked up 1,906 rushing-receiving yards and 14 TDs in a season with the Eagles. “I want one guy to be able to say, ‘Hey, we know who the starter is.’

“These next few weeks, I want to see if somebody’s willing to pick up the flag.”

Before that happens, Johnson must be able to pull on his pads. Montgomery thinks that might be soon and is anxious for it to happen.

“Duke showed so much (in the spring), all of the things we wanted him to do,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to be OK because of the things he’s done already.”

Buffalo’s Thomas played at a shade under 5-foot-10 and a bit over 205 pounds. The Browns list Johnson at 5-9, 210. Like Thomas, they see him as a big threat running or catching. He could be an ideal fit for new coordinator John DeFilippo.

“Duke gives you a dimension you didn’t have in the group we had last year,” Montgomery said. “He can be a slot receiver. He can line up wide and move all over the field. He’s a total mismatch.

“Plus, he played in this system before. Last year was the first time for West and Crowell in the system. Duke’s been in it all three years in college.”

Johnson became Miami’s all-time rushing leader with 3,519 yards (6.7 per carry). He caught 69 passes. 

Shaun Draughn, who is a relative unknown but is going on 28 and is in his fifth season of knocking around the NFL, has been a big help to the young backs. Montgomery said Draughn has quickly become “a big-time mentor to Duke.”

Montgomery is hardly writing off West and Crowell, saying the competition is “a close race.” Yet, he laments the wave of injuries that has cost West, Johnson and Glenn Winston practice time.

“The disappointing thing was all those guys not being in tip, tip, tip-top shape,” Montgomery said. “That was a total setback.”

Draughn was exempt from that comment. He was having a strong camp before banging a thumb on a helmet, and he spent Sunday in a temporary cast.

Montgomery’s overriding point is that his young backs, as a lot, need to toughen up.

“If they want to make money, get to that next contract, they have to be thinking, ‘I have to show something.’ Right now, I think the importance of that is missing,” Montgomery said. “You’ve got to play injured, you’ve got to play sore, you’ve got to play banged up.

“If you can’t deal with those things, you really can’t play.”

Crowell became last year’s fan favorite. He spent some of the season behind West, who came off as immature.

Crowell has dodged injuries thus far. Coaches haven’t forgotten that West opened 2014 with a 100-yard game at Pittsburgh and closed it with a 94-yard game at Baltimore.

“Terrance has done everything we asked him to do up to this point,” Montgomery said. “I’m proud of where he’s at right now.”

Yet, as Montgomery noted, Johnson adds a dimension. The coaches definitely think he can play.

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