NFL: Hardesty hopes to fill Lewis’ role for Browns
BEREA, Ohio — The Browns still have a punishing running back from Tennessee who wears No. 31.
Only Jamal Lewis is gone and Montario Hardesty is at Cleveland's rookie minicamp.
Hardesty, who has known Lewis since his freshman year with the Volunteers, was a second-round pick in last month's NFL draft after the Browns traded up to get him.
"He was at some of the scrimmages and he liked how I ran the ball," Hardesty said of Lewis. "So he took me under his wing and told me some things about how to prepare myself for college and prepare myself for the next level."
Hardesty now hopes to help fill the void left by his mentor, who was released in February after post-concussion symptoms ruined his final season with the Browns.
Cleveland entered last month's draft looking for a physical runner to complement Jerome Harrison and gave Philadelphia a third-round pick and two fifth-rounders to move up 12 spots and take Hardesty at the bottom of the second round.
"He was a physical runner, a punishing runner," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "He enjoyed contact. I thought those things were real positives. I think those are real positives for any team and I think it's a real positive in this division."
Harrison rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last three games, including a memorable 286-yard performance against the Chiefs. He finished the season with 862 rushing yards — 561 over the final three games — but the Browns weren't convinced that his 5-foot-9 frame could endure the pounding of a full season.
They got Peyton Hillis from Denver as part of the Brady Quinn trade before adding Hardesty, who rushed for 1,345 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior.
Injuries wrecked his first few years at Tennessee.
He was granted a medical hardship after undergoing multiple surgeries on his right knee as a freshman. He missed time the following season with ankle problems and then was limited as a junior because of a stress fracture in his foot.
The injuries didn't scare off the Browns, who liked his style and the fact he came from the Southeastern Conference, one of the best in college football.
"I think he has some good, short-area quickness and burst that some other big backs don't necessarily have," Mangini said. "How that translates remains to be seen. I liked everything that I learned about him."
Lewis clashed with Mangini during their first and only season together in Cleveland. Lewis was critical of Mangini's practice regimen and felt the coach was working the players too hard. Halfway through last season, Lewis said he would retire.
He softened that stance when the post-concussion symptoms ended his season early. After the Browns released him, he said in a statement he hadn't decided yet whether he would return to the NFL. He is still a free agent. Hardesty said he has not spoken to Lewis since the Browns drafted him.
The comparisons between Lewis and Hardesty are inevitable, considering they share the same college, pro team and now jersey number. But Hardesty shied away from any comparisons, as did Mangini.
"I can't really compare myself to Jamal," Hardesty said. "I've seen Jamal play before. Jamal is a great running back. I'll be happy to live up to half of the things that he has done in the league."