Justin Gilbert had the itch to return kicks from the moment he arrived in Cleveland.
It took a year and a few games, but Gilbert finally got his wish last week at San Diego. And after what he was able to accomplish on the first three returns of his NFL career, he's put himself in prime position to hold onto the job for a good while.
"It makes me feel good," Gilbert said. "I feel like I have worked hard for it and I have stayed with it knowing my chance would come at some point during the season. Now that it is here I have to take full advantage of it."
All three of Gilbert's returns against the Chargers went for at least 35 yards. His confidence was apparent from the start, as he caught a kick deep inside the end zone and didn't hesitate to bring it out and dart well past the 20-yard line.
It's a new role on the Browns, but it's nothing new for Gilbert, who was a do-it-all athlete at Huntsville High School in his native Texas, and set an Oklahoma State record with six kickoff returns for touchdowns. All told, he had 2,681 return yards for the Cowboys.
Entering Sunday's game at Baltimore, he's at 110 with the Browns.
"It's huge," said safety Jordan Poyer, who is also a special teams mainstay. "Everybody on this team knows how gifted of an athlete he is, and for him to go out there and show what he can do with the ball in his hands, it's huge for him and it's huge for this team to get a guy like Justin going.
"I'm excited for him. I'm excited to see where he goes from there. We're just going to keep trying to get him returns and get him going because with the ball in his hands, he can do a lot of things."
Gilbert, who has also been lauded for his blocking on punt returns, brushed off any effect it might have on his impact at defensive back, saying they were two separate things, but Poyer didn't rule it out. He knows from experience how a big play from special teams can carry over to the defense or wherever else on the team benefits from a big return.
"It just builds that confidence every time you're on the field," Poyer said. "I think for him, having that confidence to be able to go in there and help put our offense in good field position is also going to carry over to him playing defense."
Gilbert was poised to play significant snaps at defensive back during the preseason, but an untimely hip flexor injury kept him sidelined for the final three games. He saw eight snaps at the position against San Diego, as he prepared throughout the week to back up Tramon Williams at the nickel back position.
Gilbert's mindset has centered on what he can do to help the Browns most, and he got a clear picture of that against the Chargers.
"Just trying to get 100 percent back healthy and earn my way back to where I want to be in the defensive room," Gilbert said. "Right now, it is special teams and doing my job making sure I win all of my matchups on special teams. That is the biggest key for me right now."