Training camp was in its dog days. The preseason had only just begun.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard was already concentrating on the season opener against the Steelers.
“Man, I think about that a lot,” he told The Chronicle-Telegram. “It’s going to be physical. AFC North football, it’s going to be physical. That’s all you need to know.”
Hubbard will be in the middle of the action, and filled with emotion, Sunday when Pittsburgh visits FirstEnergy Stadium. Hubbard spent five years with the Steelers, one on the practice squad and the last four on the active roster. He started 10 games as an injury replacement last season, just in time to hit free agency.
He followed coordinator Todd Haley to Cleveland, signing a five-year, $36.5 million deal in March with $15 million guaranteed. Hubbard posted an Instagram message on his way out of Pittsburgh, calling the change “bittersweet … Pittsburgh has been so good to us.”
Hubbard, 27, appreciated the opportunity given to him by the Steelers, who signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2013 out of Alabama-Birmingham, where he played right tackle. He gradually earned more playing time, making his first four starts in 2016 before the breakthrough last year.
He’s embraced his new home and side of the rivalry and believes the career path has prepared him for the role of a full-time starter.
“To be honest, I think the way the career has set out for me, it couldn’t be a better way,” he said. “I’ve learned, I’ve watched guys and I took in so much knowledge to where I’m really satisfied the way my career has set up. It has helped me out a lot, has taught me a lot and to this day has got me in the right place and the right direction.”
Hubbard (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) hoped to be drafted and believed he was good enough to make it in the NFL but had to face reality when seven rounds passed without him being chosen.
“You get that call after the draft, you’re like, OK, I’ve got to work a little bit harder than what I expected,” he said.
He was confident in his physical skills but needed work on technique. He’s studied the best right tackles in the game and said the improvement is “night and day.”
“You can even ask my wife, she knows the difference and she can tell how much time I put into the craft and to the business of the game and the game that I love,” he said.
Hubbard lights up when he talks about his wife, Tamara. She and son Creed joined Hubbard at his introductory news conference, although Creed, who turns 2 on Sept. 20, slept through the questions and answers.
Tamara worked in a pediatrician’s office early in Hubbard’s career to help support the family.
“My wife has been the backbone of this whole thing,” Hubbard said. “She’s been a true warrior as far as being on this journey with me. My wife, she’s been the best, she’s been the best support system ever.”
Hubbard told himself when he did make it in the NFL he would thank her properly. So after signing his big deal, he started with a Range Rover that she chose. He’s still blown away by the contract.
“I can’t even describe it, because at that moment you feel like your whole life has changed,” he said. “I’m still trying to take in everything because it’s still like, man, this is real? But it is. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”
The Browns wouldn’t have invested the millions if they didn’t think he was worth it. They obviously got a glowing recommendation from Haley, who was in Pittsburgh for Hubbard’s entire tenure.
Hubbard hasn’t disappointed.
“He has done a great job. He has been a really good find for us,” coach Hue Jackson said. “He has quickness, balance. He is tenacious. He knows how to finish. He has great leverage.”
Line coach Bob Wylie said he “plays smooth” and has a “little nasty” in him. He said the decision to sign Hubbard was simple.
“When he got his chance and he played, he played the way it should look,” Wylie said.
“Consistently he’s always in the right position and doing the right thing, and I think that’s the most important part about offensive line play is consistency,” center JC Tretter said.
Hubbard named pass blocking as a strength because of his good feet and athleticism. He said he needs to improve in the run game but thinks the 10 pounds he added to get to 305 will help.
“Oh, yeah, the defensive line should feel it,” he said.
Power and speed also describe Hubbard’s favorite hobby. He loves big engines and fast cars and credits his dad, who had a Mustang then a Corvette.
“I guess I got the need for speed sometimes,” Hubbard said.
He’s not kidding. He has one car, a Dodge Durango he bought last year, and got giddy talking about it.
“Oh, man, for a six-passenger truck to go that fast, oh, my goodness, it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s amazing. The fastest I went in there, I shouldn’t even say this, but I went 140.”
He said he was on an open highway.
“Man, I need to test this car out, especially if I want to keep it for the rest of my life,” he said. “And it does everything that they said it does.”