Hue Jackson: Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell have 'extreme' talent

BEREA, Ohio -- Duke Johnson put it simply.

"We are here to give him whatever he wants," Johnson said last week at the team's open practice as part of organized team activities.

The "he" he refers to is new coach Hue Jackson, who showed a hefty dose of confidence in the Cleveland Browns returning running backs by not using one of the team's league-high 14 draft picks on a back.

It's a risk -- to everyone but Jackson.

"From top to bottom," Jackson said, "I think we have some good candidates here."

It did not necessarily show in 2015, when Isaiah Crowell averaged 3.8 yards per carry and totaled 706 yards. In two seasons, Crowell has 706 and 607 yards, statistical oddities but not Pro Bowl numbers. Johnson caught 61 passes as a rookie, but averaged 3.6 yards per carry."

Those are hardly the numbers of a feared hydra.

But Jackson has been talking up his backs without hesitation, telling 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland that the talent of Crowell and Johnson "is extreme."

Jackson will not hesitate to gush, but he backed up his words by committing to this pair -- with options sprinkled in. Glenn Winston and Raheem Mostert are back, and Jackson brought in Terrell Watson, who spent his rookie season on Cincinnati's practice squad.

Consider Watson -- 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds -- a legitimate dark horse. He led all of college football with 2,153 rushing yards in 2014, and set several Division II records at Azusa Pacific. The fact that Jackson saw him every day last season cannot hurt his cause.

For now, though, the job(s) are for Crowell and Johnson to lose.

In Cincinnati, where Jackson was offensive coordinator, Jeremy Hill gained 794 yards, Giovani Bernard 730. The two combined for 13 rushing touchdowns (Hill had 11) and 64 receptions (49 for Bernard). The previous season, Hill had 1,124 yards, Bernard 680, with 14 combined touchdowns and 70 combined receptions.

Jackson makes no secret he believes the team has to run the ball effectively to win. Cincinnati's two backs last season had 377 carries, 88 more than the Browns' pair. The Bengals ranked seventh in the league in rushing attempts, the Browns 27th.

Crowell can see a different approach already.

"I feel like we have a lot of different runs," he said, "and I also feel like [I see] him demanding to run the ball violently."

Crowell is the inside guy who came in as an undrafted free agent and played well enough that the Browns released Ben Tate during the season and traded Terrance West after the following training camp.

Jackson was among those watching Johnson's pro day at the University of Miami before the 2015 draft. His quickness allows him to run outside and be a weapon in the passing game. His 61 receptions set a Browns rookie record for a back, and were the second-highest total by any Browns rookie. Only Oakland's Amari Cooper -- a receiver -- had more receptions as a rookie.

Jackson sees Johnson as an every-down back. The previous coaching staff actually felt the same. They started training camp intending to make Johnson the starter. But a hamstring pull set him back, and then he was sidelined by a concussion.

The overall season was disappointing for the running game, but the Browns and the backs can point to the final four or five games when a greater commitment to the run led to more production.

Crowell averaged 5.2 yards over the final five games, when he had three of his four touchdowns. Johnson averaged 5.6 yards in the final four.

The numbers are skewed somewhat by a 223-yard day for the pair against San Francisco, but players have built momentum for the following season off less.

"I wish we could have had more of that during the whole season," Crowell said.

This season, they will get their chance.