Rookie Desmond Harrison isn't lacking confidence as he prepares for his NFL debut.
Harrison, who was named the Browns' starting left tackle Friday after an offseason of uncertainty at the position, said he has always believed he'd be in the mix for a starting job after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent this spring. That conviction comes full circle Sunday as Cleveland hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener.
"I expected it," Harrison said. "I mean, that's what I have been working toward. To win a starting job."
Harrison effectively fills a massive void left by perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, who retired in March after 11 seasons and a Hall-of-Fame caliber career. Earlier this summer, Cleveland slid veteran left guard Joel Bitonio over to left tackle before Harrison emerged after missing most of training camp with a toe injury.
Harrison, who played in three preseason games and started against Detroit last week, joins left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Chris Hubbard on a new-look offensive line that lost Thomas, added Hubbard and parted ways with a pair of former contributors in Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango.
This weekend, Harrison will be tasked with blocking the likes of Steelers standouts Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree in addition to protecting starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor's blindside.
"He's very talented. Yes, he's young but his skill level is definitely not one of a young player," Taylor said. "He's competed his butt off throughout training camp. He showed the coaches and his teammates he's ready for the opportunity."
Jackson said Harrison flashed potential in the spring as the Browns tried out a host of players at the position.
"When he came here, we were very excited," Jackson said. "There were some things he did in OTAs and we could see it."
"He's athletic. He looks like a left tackle in this league. He plays the game the right way," Bitonio added. "He plays hard. If you watch any of his tape from the preseason or in college, he really finishes guys. He likes to [play] the right way. He's coachable. He's learning."
Throughout the pre-draft process, Harrison (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) was described as a "boom or bust" prospect with elite length athleticism whose stock fell because of inconsistent play and off-field concerns. After a pair of suspensions, Harrison transferred from Texas to West Georgia, where he played 10 games in 2017 and earned first-team AFCA All-American.
Jackson said Harrison has demonstrated starting qualities both on and off the field. The coaching staff and front office, he said, trust the youngster to hold down a critical position.
"He has been outstanding since he has been here. He has handled that part of it right, or else he would not be where he is," he said. "We are looking for the total player because we need guys that are going to be dependable, accountable and are going to be there all of the time. He has demonstrated that. I think that he has earned it. He has earned it though his play and his work ethic, and doing things the right way on and off the field."
To be clear, Jackson said there's no way to truly replace Thomas, who was a staple on and off the field the past decade. "We're not going to replace Joe Thomas right away. This is going to be an offensive line effort. You are not going to replace what arguably is the best left tackle to play the game here for the Cleveland Browns in an offseason," he said. "You want it to be that way. We all wish that. But at the same time, we have to put the best player out there that gives us the best chance. Right now, it is Desmond. We are looking for him to do some good things."
The Browns, however, see a young player more than ready to take on such a challenge.
"I've talked to him. This is a very confident young man. He truly believes in his ability. The other lineman really believe in what he can do, too. That is a lot to say about his talent," Jackson said.
"What all of the players want to know is can he win for us? Can he block those guys consistently? We will start to find that out this Sunday."