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Sione Takitaki preparing to 'fly around' in 2nd year on Browns defense

Sione Takitaki won't have to worry about being comfortable when he returns to Cleveland for the first practices of his second year as a Browns linebacker.

Takitaki, a 2019 third-round draft pick, will know exactly what to expect when training camp — and a thick competition for a starting linebacker role — starts in two months. He'll know where to line up, who to cover and where to run.

In other words, he'll no longer feel like a rookie.

"I feel more prepared," Takitaki said in a recent interview. "Not that I wasn't prepared last year, but I can go into this year with X's and O's and little things that I need to work on. I feel like this year, I can definitely tune into those things."

Last spring, Takitaki's focus was on the scouting combine and improving his draft stock between his final college football game and the first day of the draft. As a mid-to-late-round draft projection, Takitaki needed to push his body to ensure his odds of not only getting drafted, but sticking around after training camp, were high. He didn't have a playbook to study, coaches to meet or players to mesh with. His focus was on himself.

In Year 2, Takitaki's offseason mentality hasn't changed. He's still focused on himself, but it's a bit different. He doesn't need to prepare for a 40-yard dash or see how many reps he knock out on a bench press. He also knows he has the aggressiveness and raw power to make tackles against NFL players.

Now, his offseason priorities are more intricate. The Browns have a new defensive coordinator in Joe Woods, who was a defensive backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers last season, so Takitaki has a new playbook to learn and, well, that's about it.

"Last year, I was preparing for Combine stuff. This year, it's just specifically football," Takitaki said. "Last year, I was learning where I should line up, and I was playing slow. Now, with all these new coaches, I can come in and play fast."

That's not to say that Takitaki is taking it easy this offseason. His daily workload still includes two hours of early-morning weight lifting and a few more hours of studying and meetings with coaches and players.

But that's what an offseason should be for non-rookies. Takitaki has enjoyed it, even though each player has needed to adapt to the virtual offseason program the NFL has deployed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Takitaki has enjoyed the remoteness of the offseason and has split time in California and Utah to see family. Sure, he'd rather be in Cleveland, but he's found it a tad easier to zone into film when he's alone in his own space.

"Even though I had a year to learn all this, I feel like this way of learning has benefitted me," he said. "I'm able to pick it up quicker because I'm 1-on-1 in a room where it's nice and quiet. You can kind of lock yourself out and jot down all the notes."

It also helps that Takitaki is at the end of his acclimation from the college level to the pros. He played in 15 games and made 21 tackles last season, and now he's preparing for a bigger role in the field in his second year.

Takitaki opened eyes from the start of training camp last season with a big-hit ability. He never shied away from a tackle, but he needed more development in pass protection. There's more to the linebacker position than stopping the run, so Takitaki has honed in on never missing an assignment and keeping his footwork in check against tight ends.

"I didn't want to say I struggled at it, but I definitely wasn't out there as one of those (coverage) guys," Takitaki said. "This offseason, I emphasized drops and one-on-one coverage. I know that come Year 2, those things are going to improve by a lot."

The Browns have one of the youngest linebacker rooms in the league but are hoping to see big leaps from Takitaki, Mack Wilson and a batch of other young talent. They signed B.J. Goodson, a five-year veteran, to compensate for the departures of Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, but they believe their current depth is strong enough to make the defense work.

Takitaki will have a chance to show he can start in Week 1. He's a strong candidate to fill in the "Will" linebacker position, or the weakside linebacker, and provide depth from the "Mike" position, which lines up left of the "Will." Takitaki said he's been told to focus on the "Will" position ahead of training camp, but he has college experience at both positions.

"They want me to play 'Will', so I'm excited to do that," he said. "It's a fast defense. You can fly around, and it's definitely my style. I feel comfortable at the 'Will' or the 'Mike.'"

There's that word again: "comfortable." Even though he's playing under a new coach and the pressure of plugging into a starting role, he feels at ease. That's how the second-year transition for an NFL player should be.

For Takitaki, it might be what elevates his game to the next level.

"It's going to be a good time," he said. "I know people are sleeping on us, but it's all right. We're gonna make it happen."