Rookie RB Hardesty looking to fill Lewis' big shoes for Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns still have a punishing running back who's from the University of Tennessee and wears No. 31.

Only Jamal Lewis is gone and Montario Hardesty is at the Browns' rookie minicamp.

Hardesty, who has known Lewis since his freshman year with the Volunteers, was a second-round pick in last week's NFL draft after the Browns traded up to grab 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 the Philadelphia Eagles a third-round pick and two fifth-round choices 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 Kansas City 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.

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The Browns acquired Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos as part of the Brady Quinn trade before adding Hardesty, who rushed for 1,345 yards and 12 touchdowns as a college senior.

Injuries wrecked Hardesty's 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, then was limited as a junior because of a stress fracture in his foot.

The injuries didn't scare off the Browns, who liked Hardesty's style and the fact that 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 believed the coach was working the players too hard. Halfway through last season, Lewis said he would retire.

Lewis softened that stance when the post-concussion symptoms ended his season early. After the Browns released him, he said in a statement that he hadn't decided yet whether he would return to the NFL. Lewis is still a free agent, and Hardesty said he hasn't spoken to his mentor 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."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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