CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns are no stranger to injuries this season, especially at right guard. On Sunday night as the Browns took on the New York Giants, they did so with versatile offensive lineman Chris Hubbard filling in for right guard Wyatt Teller, who was ruled out Friday with an ankle injury.
In the first quarter, however, Hubbard sustained a knee injury and was sidelined for the remainder of the game. With their backup right guard unable to play, the Browns called upon rookie center Nick Harris to fill in.
In prime-time, Harris took his first real snaps as a Cleveland Brown, and he did so out of his usual position, which is a testament to his talent, his position coach, Cleveland’s ability to develop young players and the “next man up” mentality the team has embraced this season.
Back to his roots
Before Sunday’s game, Harris had taken just one snap for the Browns on offense this season, at center. By the time Cleveland had its 10th victory, Harris had a season total of 63 snaps.
Filling in at right guard was a big ask for Harris, who was drafted as a center out of Washington this year. And although he is a center, Sunday night wasn’t his first time playing at right guard.
Harris began his college football career at Washington playing at both left and right guard. He earned his first start for the Huskies at left guard and played in meaningful games at both positions that year, including starting at right guard in the 2016 Pac-12 championship game and in the 2016 Peach Bowl.
After his freshman year, Harris continued to play right guard, earning Academic All-Pac-12 honorable mention, honorable mention All-Pac-12 and was named the coaches’ lineman of the game against Utah.
Harris shifted to center his junior year and played the position the rest of his time at Washington.
Although he had no NFL experience at right guard, Harris was familiar with the position and played it well in college, and the Browns trusted him to bring those skills they needed it most.
Shaped by Bill Callahan
Throughout the season, head coach Kevin Stefanski, players and even general manager Andrew Berry have all sung the praises of offensive line coach Bill Callahan—and for good reason.
“I think that [the offensive line] has been outstanding. I can’t say this enough, but I would also like to throw in, in terms of additions, Bill Callahan into that group. I can’t overstate his impact on that position group. It is going to be a part of our DNA. That is a group that we want to make sure is strong and deep for the long term because it really does set a foundation for your offense,” Berry said in November.
Yes, the Browns bolstered their o-line with talent during the offseason, but under Callahan the line has thrived with its players among the top-ranked at their respective positions.
At guard, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio lead the league in PFF’s offensive grading, with Teller ranked No. 1 and Bitonio ranked No. 3. The Browns offensive line was the highest graded-group in Week 13 and had been all season, both in run blocking and pass protection.
Callahan has helped create a culture of success for the offensive line. Back in August, he had this to say of rookie Harris as he continued to work with him:
His development has been interesting, just because of the fact that he was not expected to come in and run the show. He has been impressive in the sense that he can communicate all of the various sequences of communications along the line, whether it is the point system or the call system. He can get us in and out of the protection calls that we need to make. That aspect for a young center has been really impressive. Then of course, trying to bring him up to speed with all the physical fundamental techniques at his position, it has been really challenging, but he is a guy that continues to make strides and improvement.
So far, we are really pleased, but until you get him matched up against teams like Baltimore and obviously Cincinnati, you just do not know. He has just come in there with a really good confidence about himself and nice poise, and that is refreshing for a young player. You do not have to worry about him not being able to get up to the line and ID the front or make the right call. He is still learning of course – he is not there yet – but he has really, really made tremendous strides, especially for that position. For a guy to come in and do that, I have been fortunate to have a couple of guys like that in my past, and he has kind of run that same type of flow in terms of communication so that is great to see.
Callahan and the team have been working to perfect Harris, but ready or not, on what is a very good Browns offensive line, he was called upon to fill in at right guard—a task Stefanski said he wasn’t surprised with his ability to do.
“I know Nick is going to battle. I am not surprised. I have not watched the tape, but I am not surprised that he can go in there and battle and fight. He is a very smart player, being able to play center and guard for us. Not surprised that he is ready to go when we need him,” Stefanski said after Sunday’s game. “Have to look at the tape to give you a full evaluation, but really pleased with where Nick is as a player. He is continuing to develop and works very, very hard with Coach Callahan and [assistant offensive line] Coach [Scott] Peters.”
The tape might show some flaws and missteps, sure. But with Harris on the line, quarterback Baker Mayfield was only sacked once, early in the third quarter. Cleveland may have taken it easy on the rookie by moving the run game through the left side of the line primarily, but he was able to hold his own in a high-pressure situation.
As Stefanski praised the efforts of Harris after Sunday night’s game, so did some of his fellow teammates.
Mayfield said that it’s hard to see a teammate go down, especially one as versatile as Hubbard, but raved about the efforts Harris gave while filling in.
“The way Nick Harris stepped up and played guard, he is our backup center, and for him to be able to step up and play a different position is tremendous. Hats off to him for mentally being ready and being able to come out there and play well,” Mayfield said after the game.
While he got love from his quarterback, the rookie drew the highest praise from wide receiver Jarvis Landry Sunday night.
“Listen, the first person I went to after the game – I know he is going to get interviewed after I say it this week – is him. Just giving him the praise and respect because he is a center. I do not know how much guard he has played in his life, but he stepped up, stepped in and did what he had to do. The offense continued to flow as is. That was something that was very special,” Landry said following the game.
“I went to him after the game and told him, ‘I appreciate you. I appreciate the way you work. I appreciate the way that you can step into a role that you maybe weren’t prepared for and still be able to get the job done.’ It speaks volumes about this kid. It speaks volumes about Andrew Berry being able to draft this guy, who is as versatile as he is and can come in and make these plays and do the assignments that we need to have successful plays and win the football game.”
Landry said he had never seen Harris play at guard before.
“It is like, ‘Wait, this rookie came in the first quarter, played the whole game and did what he had to do. He kicked ass.’ That is something that does not go unnoticed. I just wanted to let him know that personally that I was proud of the way he came out and did what he had to do for the team,” Landry said.
On Monday, Harris said that he was excited to get out on the field and felt good to be out there under the prime-time lights.
"It was fun. It was good to get back on the field and play a football game. I haven't played an actual game in awhile. So it felt good to get out there and run around and just try to play my brand of football," Harris said. "I think I did okay. There's a lot to clean up. I want to be the best, so I'm going to watch the film and see where I can get better and see how I can help the team and just go from there."
Harris said that he's prepared for his moment all season, and now that it's here, he wants to be ready for it.
"I go into every game as if I'm going to play. That's how you have to do it," Harris said. "I make sure I go over center and guard things and just make sure if my name is called that I'm ready to go assignment wise."
The rookie said he gets reps on the scout team at guard and he believes the extra work he puts in with Callahan and Peters paid off Sunday night.
"I just have to get my feet wet a little bit and play how I play, but I felt comfortable, and as the weeks go by and I get more reps it'll feel even better," Harris said. "I'm just grateful to have this opportunity. Just trying to build off it and trying be the best player and best version of myself I can be. With that, I have to go in this week and get better—go try and fix what I did wrong and build off that."
The praise Harris received from his coach and teammates was well deserved. With Hubbard out for "significant time" and Teller still dealing with an ankle injury, there’s a good chance Sunday night wasn’t the last time Harris will play a big role and he should be a guy fans keep their eye on as he continues to develop into something special for the Cleveland Browns.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.