Browns rookie to start at left tackle in opener vs Steelers
The Browns only realized it in the past few days.
An undrafted rookie with a checkered past, Harrison will open the season as Cleveland’s starting left tackle — a position held down by Thomas, a future Hall of Famer, for more than a decade — on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I’m replacing Joe, so I know how big it is,” Harrison said.
It’s a remarkable jump for Harrison, who last season was pile-driving players at Division II Georgia State after not playing for three years following his dismissal at Texas.
To Harrison, it’s just football on a larger stage.
“It’s a big leap,” Harrison said Friday after coach Hue Jackson announced yet another transformation to his offensive line. “Kind of more people at the game, stuff like that. So that’s probably like the only difference.”
Well, there’s also blocking Cam Heyward and the other Steelers, who led the NFL with 57 sacks a season.
But you gotta admire the rookie’s swagger.
Harrison’s ascension up the depth chart is the latest wrinkle up front for the Browns, who have been tinkering with the left side of their offensive line for weeks. The team recently slid left guard Joel Bitonio to tackle and plugged rookie Austin Corbett in at guard.
However, after four preseason games, Jackson and his coaching staff didn’t like the line’s makeup. Determined to put the “best five guys on the field,” the Browns decided to go with the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Harrison who looks like he was engineered in a laboratory for left tackles.
“He looks like a left tackle in this league,” Bitonio said.
Jackson said the 24-year-old Harrison has played like one.
“He is very talented,” Jackson said. “He has earned it. He competed. When you put all of the different variables out there of what we could have done or would have done, and you look at it and you watch the practice tape and the game, he is the best left tackle for us to play right now.
“Obviously, Joel is the best left guard. We feel like we are heading in the right direction by far. I agonized over this decision because it is a huge decision. At the same time, I have confidence one, in our coaches, and in the player. He has worked hard. He wants this opportunity. He has demonstrated that.”
Harrison took a unique, unorthodox path to the NFL.
A big-time high school recruit, Harrison committed to Auburn but didn’t have the grades and started at Contra Costa (Calif.) Community College. He played two seasons of JUCO ball before transferring to Texas, where he played in seven games in 2013. But after reportedly failing multiple drug tests, he was suspended several times and eventually left.
He didn’t play in 2015 and 2016, explaining he “was just getting myself right mentally.”
Harrison started nine games last season at West Georgia, compiling a dominant highlight tape that looks like excerpts pulled from the movie “Blindside.” He missed the Senior Bowl because of a sprained knee and failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
He admitted the drug test probably cost him being drafted, but the Browns signed him as a free agent in May.
From the moment he arrived at rookie mini-camp, Harrison said he knew he would take over for Thomas, the 10-time Pro Bowler who retired in March following a remarkable career that included never missing a snap — 10,363 straight — until an injury ended his 2017 season.
How did Harrison know?
“Just how confident I am in myself,” he said.
Bitonio likes everything about Harrison.
“It’s obviously going to be a big jump Sunday when you’re playing in front of 60,000 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a vaunted defense, but I think he’s ready,” Bitonio said. “I think the coaches and upper management have made that decision and they trust him and they know he’s going to get better every rep that he’s out there to improve. He’s a confident, kid, though.
“I know he feels like he belongs out there.”