BEREA — Joel Bitonio has been in this spot before. Less than a week before the season and uncertain what position he’s going to play in the opener.
“Yeah, in high school,” he said Monday.
The Browns returned to the practice field after a weekend of heavy roster movement and began preparing in earnest for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ visit on Sunday. Yet coach Hue Jackson wasn’t ready to announce his starters at left guard and left tackle.
Bitonio will fill one of the spots.
“Yeah, it’s different, for sure. Usually you have your five linemen, you’re set to go,” he said. “We’re trying to get our best five guys out there.
“I just do what I’m told. That’s a Coach Jackson question, I’m ready to go out there and play whatever position he wants me to play.”
Bitonio was a fixture at left guard for the first four years of his career, before Jackson abruptly moved him to left tackle early in training camp when Shon Coleman and rookie No. 33 pick Austin Corbett were deemed not up to the task. Bitonio seemed set to stay there for the season, with Corbett at left guard, until Jackson mentioned Friday the situation was “fluid.”
The options are the status quo of Bitonio and Corbett, or undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison at left tackle and Bitonio at guard.
Bitonio was reluctant to leave guard, so he’d welcome the move back. But he said he’s not lobbying Jackson.
“No, he just tells me what to do,” he said.
Jackson said the decision’s been made — “I already know what it is,” he said — but he isn’t ready to share it. He contradicted himself within the interview.
“Have not really worked through it yet,” he said. “Right now, it is the way that it has been.
“We have a week. We do not play until Sunday. We are going to figure it out and put the best five guys out there.”
Jackson said he won’t try to keep the Steelers guessing and will announce the lineup before the game, likely Wednesday when practice resumes. Bitonio is looking forward to knowing.
“I’m ready for both, though,” he said. “Whatever they put me at I’m ready to go and play some football finally.
“I think it’s just trying to get the best five guys out there and it’s taking a little more time than we would have hoped. We’re going to need a few good days of practice, we’re going to get a good rhythm going and we’ll be fine for Pittsburgh.”
Bitonio and Jackson aren’t worried about him adjusting back to guard if that’s the decision. Harrison’s potential is what would precipitate the move.
He played in seven games off the bench at Texas in 2013, then missed the entire 2014 season after he was suspended twice reportedly for multiple failed drug tests. After two years away from the game, he started nine games at West Georgia.
He’s 6-foot-6, 295 pounds.
“He can move, man. He’s athletic. He’s definitely the most athletic lineman we have,” Bitonio said. “And he has the length, he has the size, he’s the prototypical left tackle when you think of a left tackle.
“He’s like 6-6, long arms, can get back and set. He’s done some good things. I know he hasn’t played against the ones all the time but when he’s been out there he’s made some good plays. We’re just making sure he has the right mindset and understands what he’s doing every play.”
Harrison opened camp on the physically unable to perform list with a toe injury and practiced for the first time Aug. 12. He worked his way up to second-team left tackle and started the preseason finale against the Lions when Bitonio got the night off.
Harrison played 107 preseason snaps compared to Corbett’s 242, as the coaches tried to get him up to speed at guard after playing left tackle at Nevada.
“I don’t want to talk about him too much,” Jackson said of Harrison. “You’ve seen him play in games. The guy is big and long and athletic. So he’s got talent.”
The gaping hole at left tackle is because 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas retired in March. Bitonio seized the opportunity to take a jab at Thomas when it was mentioned his replacement could be an undrafted rookie.
“He’s a little overrated, huh?” Bitonio said.
Despite being in limbo, Bitonio was relaxed as he talked in the Labor Day heat.
“I feel good where I’m at, I’m ready to play some football and I’m healthy, I feel strong,” he said. “Let’s just go get it.”