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OTAs & Minicamp

Dontrell Hilliard earns sparkling reviews after excellent performance in OTAs

Freddie Kitchens and his coaching staff in the last three weeks used organized team activities to install what he called a "base" for his team's offensive and defensive schemes.

Amid all of the instruction and installation, Dontrell Hilliard used the repetitions to make a name for himself.

Signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in early May 2018, Hilliard spent the first month of his first season on Cleveland's practice squad before he was elevated to the active roster on Oct. 9. He ended up appearing in 11 games and recording nine receptions for 105 yards.

Judging by his performance during OTAs, Hilliard is poised for much more in 2019 -- as long as he believes it's possible.

"When Freddie asked me to join him, he had high praises for Dontrell," Browns running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. "Like I told Dontrell, all I know is that we drafted a guy with the Jets in the seventh round, and (Hilliard) wasn't drafted at all, and this guy came from a historically black university and Dontrell came from Tulane, so there has to be a problem somewhere. And it's not his physical skills.

"He's got to believe that he belongs and we expect him to come out every day and make plays. I think what he has to understand is that he has to believe in himself as much as we believe in him. Now, he's getting an opportunity. This is huge for him, and he's having one heck of a spring training camp."

Check out photos from the ninth day of OTA practices

Hilliard has been all over the field within the Browns' offense, thriving as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He repeatedly won one-on-ones and made difficult catches in the process, and has flashed as a multi-talented back who might just need a chance.

If a player with such abilities sounds familiar, it should. That player's name is Duke Johnson, an excellent runner who has also thrived as a pass-catcher for the Browns when he's been targeted.

The reason Hilliard is being mentioned in place of Johnson, though, is because Johnson hasn't been in attendance for any of the Browns' voluntary offseason activities. His absence has created the chance Hilliard needs to potentially stick with the Browns.

"I would love to see Duke as part of the team in September," Mitchell said. "I would also like to -- and I know it's voluntary -- I would've liked to see him take part in this camp because when you don't take part in this camp, you give somebody an opportunity to play that may not have had the opportunity. Now, that guy has to take advantage of the opportunity. Dontrell has been doing a hell of a job taking advantage of the opportunities."

Mitchell wasn't finished there with his praise for Hilliard.

"Everything," Mitchell said when asked what he likes about Hilliard. "His mindset, first of all, that he belongs here, that he can get things done. His ability to run routes, his ability to catch the ball. Just being quite frank with him about where he needs to be mentally, he needs to reach the point where we see he's at skill-wise. And I think he's climbing that ladder."

Behind the scenes photos from Media Day

Mitchell also raved about Johnson's high-level abilities as a running back, explaining his relationship with Johnson that stretches back to when he was attempting to recruit Johnson to Southern University when Johnson was at Miami Norland Senior High School. But in Johnson's absence, Hilliard has done more than just fill in -- he's made quite the impression on Mitchell, who told reporters Thursday he thinks Hilliard is talented enough to carry the majority of a backfield load.

"Freddie and (offensive coordinator Todd) Monken have expressed how much they want Duke to be a part of this team. There's things that we want to do," Mitchell said. "We're still trying to do those things, but now we're trying to do them with Dontrell, and he's looking pretty daggone good."

There's another key element that makes Hilliard's inclusion that much more important: special teams. As the Browns continue to test out different skilled players at returner, Hilliard has frequently found himself catching the first reps. It's a position at which the Browns have lacked talent in recent years, and one that could also see the inclusion of Antonio Callaway at a later date. For now, Hilliard appears to be the frontrunner, making him that much more valuable.

"Absolutely. He is," Mitchell said of Hilliard's ability to make a major impact. "Freddie told me 'Stump, I really like this kid. He can either make it or break it.' When a head coach feels that way about a kid, I know he's got some talent. It's my job to do whatever I need to do to get him to change his mindset and reach the level we think he should be at."

"I liked his versatility," Kitchens said of Hilliard. "His acceleration, speed, hands, his ability to make moves, cuts, avoid defenders. Dontrell is a good football player. He is a special guy on special teams too."

Special teams might just be the beginning for Hilliard. He's definitely off to a good start.

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