Dontrell Hilliard didn’t take a handoff last year as an undrafted rookie running back, but the news of the Browns’ trade of Duke Johnson Jr. to the Houston Texans on Thursday showed the confidence the Browns have in Hilliard as the likely running mate to starter Nick Chubb.
Hilliard is in line to begin the season behind Chubb on the depth chart and fill the void Johnson leaves as a pass-catching running back used mostly on third down plays. He should have opportunities to finally rack up rushing yards, too, and Hilliard is ready for whatever plan the Browns have now that he’s the primary backup until Kareem Hunt returns from an eight-game suspension.
“I feel real comfortable,” Hilliard said. “Anytime my number is called, I can be the guy, so I have no doubt in my mind I can fill a more important role. It’s a competitive game, and that move they made opened an opportunity for me, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Check out photos from the thirteenth day of Browns Camp by team photographer Matt Starkey
Hilliard played in 11 games for the Browns last season and totaled 105 receiving yards on nine receptions. He was signed off the practice squad in October to back up Chubb and Johnson after Carlos Hyde was traded midseason.
The 2018 undrafted free agent is still inexperienced, but that hasn’t stopped him from making flashy plays in training camp, and it didn’t stop the Browns from orchestrating a trade that will give Hilliard a chance to prove his worth as a backup running back.
Hilliard was already a safe bet to make the 53-man roster as a kick and punt returner. He made 11 returns last season and averaged a solid 24 yards per return, and now the Browns will look to utilize Hilliard’s shiftiness from the backfield.
“Dontrell has shown some explosion in the open field,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. “He is hard to get down. Body control is a characteristic or a skillset that running backs sometimes often get overlooked. He has great body control, change of direction and great speed. I like those skillsets.”
Hilliard is hoping the lessons he learned from the sideline as a rookie last season will pay off. He’s already felt a positive change in the speed of play in his second year, and he hopes to rely less on instincts and more on correctly assuming what the defense will give him.
The newly added pressure of becoming a reliable sidekick to Chubb hasn’t affected Hilliard’s mindset, either.
“It’s no more pressure,” Hilliard said. “I see the game more and learned more of the game. I spent time this offseason to kind of focus on the detailed small things and protection wise. I have a little knowledge of the game now.”
Hilliard hopes that knowledge will lead him to a bunch of career firsts — his first career rush will be one of them. From there, Hilliard will look to deliver on the Browns’ vote of confidence just a year removed from his ascension to the NFL as an undrafted rookie.