BEREA — Three times kicking in the fickle winds and footing of FirstEnergy Stadium isn’t nearly enough to feel comfortable, let alone confident.
So new special teams coordinator Mike Priefer sent rookie kicker Austin Seibert, rookie punter Jamie Gillan and veteran long snapper Charley Hughlett to the stadium twice this week to practice before the opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. Priefer plans to do it every week.
“The more familiar they are with their surroundings, the more we can make FirstEnergy Stadium a home-field advantage for us,” Priefer said Thursday. “Because, honestly, they’ve only been down there for a scrimmage and then two preseason games until this week. So when they go down there, I want them to feel, I think comfortable would be the wrong word, I think more confident every time they go down there. Hey, I’ve been here, I know what the flag’s doing, I know what the winds are doing, I’ve got an idea where I need to punt the ball or what hash I need to kick the game-winning field goal from, etc.
“The more we go down there, the more confident they’ll become just by working down there and getting used to that stadium because, as you guys know, as the year goes on it’s going to get colder and windier and the weather’s going to turn nasty here in Cleveland like it always does and I think the more they kick outdoors, the more they kick in the stadium setting more so than the practice field, it will get them ready for pretty much any outdoor stadium.”
Seibert struggled early in training camp but improved after an adjustment he compared to getting a car’s tires realigned. He shortened the last step on his approach.
“He was jamming himself a little bit with his plant foot and that caused some inconsistencies with his leg swing and follow-through and ball contact,” Priefer said. “Just a little tweak that he found, we watched some tape together, we figured it out and worked on it.
“It’s still a little bit of a work in progress, but he’s found a little bit more consistent leg swing and follow-through, so I think he’s on the right track.”
Defensive end Myles Garrett thanked the fans for sticking with the team through its struggles and declared times have changed during an open letter posted on The Players’ Tribune under the headline “We’re Here.” Read it here
“We’ve gone and taken what a Cleveland Browns team is ‘supposed’ to do, in people’s minds, and we’ve changed that from this curse into this gift. Into an opportunity,” he wrote. “And it’s shaping up to be one of those special seasons.”
He closed with: “Because we’re the Cleveland Browns — and we’re not supposed to be here. But guess what? We’re here.”
Garrett also wrote that he became convinced quarterback Baker Mayfield was the right man for the job when he threw for 351 yards in the second half of a loss at Houston after throwing three interceptions in the first half and never flinching.
“That was one of those losses where, even in the moment, you could see a silver lining,” Garrett wrote. “Because guys came away from it knowing Baker was for real. They came away from it knowing we had a quarterback.”
** Garrett posed nude for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue released this week. Defensive end Olivier Vernon hadn’t seen the pictures but was shown one during his time with reporters.
“I’ve gotta give him sh– for it now,” he said.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson had already started.
“He wants to be a sex symbol so bad,” he said.
Potential and progress earned Gillan the job.
“It would’ve been very difficult to let a guy like Jamie out of the building,” Priefer said. “He’s so talented, got such a big leg swing, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Gillan had to prove he could handle the holding duties and did that in the preseason finale as Seibert went 4-for-4.
“That was a big factor in the final decision,” Priefer said. “He’s such a good athlete he picked up on it pretty quick.”
Gillan brings the added benefits of kicking left-footed and being a good tackler. Most punters are right-footed, so returners struggle with the southpaws. Gillan, a former rugby player, made three tackles in the preseason, and Priefer called him the “most willing” punter he’s ever seen.
“That’s a nice bonus to have, but you’re hoping he doesn’t make any this year because that means we’re covering punts and kicks better than we did the other night,” he said.
Veteran linebacker Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey stood up to the challenge of rookie draft picks Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson. Schobert and Kirksey open the season entrenched in their starting roles, although coordinator Steve Wilks said the rookies could enter the mix at some point.
“I am very impressed with what Joe and Christian have done,” Wilks said. “I love the physicality that Christian is playing with. Joe with his ball skills has been able to play out in space, and those guys are doing a great job of playing downhill, which we emphasize a lot at our linebacker position.”
2 FOR 1
Wilks prefers not to rotate his linebackers and cornerbacks because he wants the starters to get into a rhythm. He may make an exception to get rookie cornerback Greedy Williams, a second-round pick, some experience.
Veteran Terrance Mitchell was the starter opposite Denzel Ward to finish the preseason and is listed as the starter on the depth chart.
“Look for both of those guys to be in there at some point in time,” Wilks said.
The Browns traded for guards Wyatt Teller and Justin McCray last week, but offensive coordinator Todd Monken is confident in Eric Kush, who’s been working as the starting right guard for a month.
“We are fine at right guard,” he said. “Every team has different spots where you have competition. Kush has been in this league a long time. He is a good football player. Whether it is him, some of the guys we brought in or Austin (Corbett), we anticipate that they will play well.”
Running back Dontrell Hilliard will serve as the leading kickoff and punt returner, but Priefer left open the door for running back D’Ernest Johnson to get a shot. And if the team needs a big play late, receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry could get the call.
** Kitchens was asked if he plans to go deep to Beckham on his first play call of the season.
“Double pass — just kidding,” said Kitchens, who joked last year about running the wishbone before using it in a game.
** Richardson said he doesn’t need to borrow Beckham’s Rolls Royce because he has his own.
“Black and teal, my high school colors,” he said.
** Titans right guard Kevin Pamphile (knee) didn’t practice, while right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) was a full participant after missing Wednesday.