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BEREA, Ohio — Using his instincts, Montario Hardesty spotted the hole and burst through toward daylight.
With Peyton Hillis unable to play against Miami on Sunday because of a severe case of strep throat, Hardesty got to make his first NFL start for the Browns.
He made the most of it.
And Cleveland’s backfield may never be the same.
Hardesty rushed for 67 yards on 14 attempts, gaining 19 on a third-quarter carry where he displayed all the qualities — speed, size, and strength — that convinced the Browns to trade three draft picks to Philadelphia and select him in the second round last year. Hardesty missed his entire rookie season after knee surgery, but he’s finally healthy and the Browns’ running game may be about to get much better.
“What we found Sunday is Montario’s further along than I thought he was and can handle more than I thought he could,” said Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who never imagined Hardesty being on the field for more than 60 offensive plays. “Sometimes that happens out of necessity.”
Hardesty’s emergence gives the Browns another option on offense.
And, who knows? There could come a time in the future when Hardesty supplants Hillis as Cleveland’s primary back.
For now, though, the Browns believe they have two solid backs they can use in single-back formations or packages together. It’s a luxury they haven’t had in years.
Whether it’s the hard-hitting Hillis or shifty Hardesty getting the ball, Cleveland’s line doesn’t have to do anything radical — just block.
“We don’t really change our scheme up too much,” quarterback Colt McCoy said.
“But they both have a little bit different style and I think both are really good. I think having Montario get a chance to play in that game will help us, especially as we move forward. He’ll give Peyton some blows and it’s good. We’re excited about those two guys.”
Hillis returned to practice Wednesday as the Browns (2-1) began installing their game plan for Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (2-1).
Hillis spent Saturday night at the team’s downtown hotel and went to the stadium on Sunday morning expecting to play. However, when his symptoms worsened, Hillis was sent home by Shurmur two hours before kickoff.
The Browns went into the game short-handed at running back with just Hardesty rookie Armond Smith.
Hillis was only briefly in Cleveland’s locker room following practice before going to the weight room.
“I’ve started feeling better the past couple days,” said Hillis. “I’ve gained back a little of the weight I lost.”
Shurmur’s dilemma going forward could be deciding how to split the carries up evenly for Hillis and Hardesty. As long as Hillis can play, the Browns will probably remain cautious with Hardesty, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the final preseason game last year
Shurmur made it clear that Hillis, who ran for nearly 1,200 yards last season and is in negotiations for a contract extension, remains the Browns’ No. 1 back. Hardesty may be 1a.
“I do know that Peyton can carry a big load and I think that’s good,” Shurmur said.