BEREA — Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin underwent reconstructive right knee surgery last Nov. 15, but his recovery is well ahead of schedule.
Special teams coach Chris Tabor has been so impressed with Benjamin’s comeback that he named him the team’s primary kickoff and punt returner Thursday.
“We’re in the business of winning games, and Travis gives you an opportunity for a big play,” Tabor said. “Obviously, he’s an explosive weapon, and if he’s our best player doing it, then we’re going to put him out there and do it.
“He’s done a great job already in training camp, which is why Travis is going to be our returner this season.”
Benjamin averaged 48.7 yards on three kickoff returns and 11.7 yards on 22 punt runbacks before disaster struck eight games into the 2013 season.
While returning a punt on Oct. 27, the speedster from Miami (Fla.) caught his right cleat in the turf during a spin move at Arrowhead Stadium, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
“It was a non-contact injury in Kansas City that can happen at any time,” Tabor lamented. “But Travis is healthy now, he’s running well, he’s catching the ball well. And to me, he still appears very fast.”
Benjamin also believes that is the case, which is why he was pleased to hear Tabor’s announcement. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has wanted to serve as Cleveland’s lone return man since being drafted in 2012, but this will mark his first opportunity to do so.
“It’s going to be great, knowing that I can be a big factor, that playmaker that gives us that extra yard we need to be a successful team,” said Benjamin, who has scored two touchdowns on 25 career punt returns.
“Just to get back in the swing of things, there are going to be butterflies on that first hit, so it will be nice to get the jitterbugs out of the way.”
Though the Browns play their preseason opener Saturday in Detroit, it’s likely that Benjamin won’t see significant time until the regular season begins Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh.
Tabor said he plans on using several other players to run back kicks against the Lions, preferring to save his most dangerous weapon for the Steelers.
“It makes no difference to me,” Benjamin said. “Whether it’s a kick return or punt return, it’s all about setting the offense up so we can go down and score touchdowns. As a unit, we’ll scheme it up and block it how Coach Tabor wants us to, and make the best out of it for the team.”
Browns coach Mike Pettine said quarterback Brian Hoyer will exclusively play with the first-team offense against Detroit.
Rookie Johnny Manziel, who is listed as the backup on Cleveland’s official depth chart, is slated to see action with the second-teamers.
“The circumstances could change, obviously, but I think we’ll pretty much stick to the units as we’ve practiced,” the coach said. “There’s no solid (reason) for it, other than we just didn’t want to mix the units in this game.”
Pettine added that the quarterback battle remains the most intriguing on the squad, but listed running back, guard and wide receiver as other competitive spots.
“I think there’s good competition there at guard with (John) Greco, (Garrett) Gilkey, and I want to see how (rookie Joel) Bitonio plays,” he said. “I’m very interested in that.”
Ben Tate and Terrance West are squaring off at running back, while Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins are the top candidates to start at receiver.
Though the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Gilkey towers over most of his teammates, that wasn’t always the case.
The second-year pro said he was a late bloomer, physically, and didn’t see any time on the line until high school in Sandwich, Ill.
“I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t block, and I couldn’t tackle,” Gilkey said, laughing. “Because I was so small in junior high, I played kicker. That’s why my sports idol, honestly, was Paul Edinger.”
Gilkey said he was so impressed with Chicago kicker Edinger that he built a wooden box in shop class with his name and number on it. He also painted it with the Bears’ color scheme.
“It was the biggest thrill when my dad and I went to the first game at the new Soldier Field, on Monday Night Football against Green Bay,” Gilkey recalled. “We went down to the front row during warmups and I waved at Paul, and he waved back.
“Now that I’m in the NFL, it would be kind of neat if I could actually meet him, just to say, ‘Hi.’”
Nine players on the Browns’ 90-man roster did not participate in practice and will not play in Detroit.
Tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder), wide receiver Nate Burleson (hamstring), cornerback Justin Gilbert (groin), linebackers Eric Martin (concussion) and Darius Eubanks (shoulder), defensive end Billy Winn (abdomen), tackle Reid Fragel (lower leg), and guards Randall Harris (knee) and Alex Parsons (right knee) all sat out the morning workout.
Defensive end Calvin Barnett (eye) left during the practice, while offensive linemen Michael Bowie (shoulder) and Nick McDonald (wrist) remain out with long-term injuries. Bowie is expected to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery next week.
- Quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains will determine how many snaps that Tyler Thigpen and rookie Connor Shaw — the other two quarterbacks on the team — will see against the Lions.
- Wide receiver Josh Gordon still has not been informed whether the NFL will uphold his year-long suspension for violating the league’s illegal substance policy.
- The Browns will travel to Detroit this afternoon, while the Lions are holding a morning practice at their training facility in Allen Park, Mich.
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org