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Harrison steps up

Little former Cougar making a big impact in Cleveland

Tom Withers Associated Press

BEREA, Ohio – The shortest Browns player has raised his profile.

Generously listed at 5-foot-9, Jerome Harrison has been told he’s too small to play football for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve heard that all my life,” he said, “and I’ve been scoring touchdowns my whole life. Opinions and thoughts don’t define me. Just put in the tape and watch me. Then you can make your opinion.”

The current consensus on Harrison is that he’s Cleveland’s best running back.

The other overriding sentiment running around town is: Where’s he been?

Harrison has rushed for 434 yards on 73 carries the past two weeks, out-of-the-blue performances that brought into question why the Browns, whose 32nd-ranked offense has struggled most of the season, didn’t try to use the shifty four-year veteran more earlier in the season.

Two weeks ago in Kansas City, Harrison ran 34 times for 286 yards – the third-most in NFL history – to break Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s single-game team mark. Harrison followed that up with 148 yards last week against Oakland while setting a club record with 39 tries – one more than Lee Suggs’ team record and two more than Brown ever attempted.

Harrison showed he could withstand the pounding, even though he joked that he felt like a busted pinata.

“I’m good now,” Harrison said Thursday as the Browns prepared for their season finale against Jacksonville. “I can move a little bit. I took care of my body well this week – a lot of cold tub, hot tub and massages. When the season’s over I won’t move for about two weeks. I’ll just lay in bed and sleep and rest. I feel all right. I really do.”

While he’s been a workhorse lately, Harrison was a forgotten man for a large chunk of the season. Nicknamed “The Ghost” while running for 1,900 yards in 2005 at Washington State, Harrison was nearly invisible.

In Week 4, starting in place of an injured Jamal Lewis, Harrison had 29 carries for 129 yards against Cincinnati. Over the next seven games, he had just 23 carries and was inactive when the Browns visited the Detroit Lions on Nov. 22.

The second time he faced the Bengals, Harrison was handed the ball twice.

It was around that time that Harrison said he had a “good conversation” with Browns coach Eric Mangini. Harrison was not blocking as well as he needed to on blitzes, and his effort in practice was not up to Mangini’s demanding standards.

Harrison took Mangini’s words to heart.

“It was just two grown men getting on the same page,” he said. “We were working in the same direction. It just wasn’t in the same lane, but we were both pushing for the right thing so we just sat and talked. We just cleared up the little bit of misconception that we had. We have a great relationship. I like the guy and everything is working.”

While Harrison’s size may have been a factor to the colleges that recruited him or the NFL teams that passed him up in the draft, he has made the most of his natural gifts.

In a game of giants, sometimes it pays to be closer to the ground.

“There are some advantages to being smaller,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to see me when I’m running behind Joe Thomas. He’s 6-4 and huge. I’m a little guy. It has its advantage.”

This week, Harrison will be on the field with another of the NFL’s best “little” backs, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, a 5-foot-7, 208-pound battering ram.

The two squared off in college and Jones-Drew remembers Harrison doing damage against his alma mater.

“He tore UCLA up for 280, 290 (yards),” Jones-Drew said. “I’ve known Jerome for a while and he’s been a great back. Playmakers come in all shapes and sizes and a lot of people are starting to know that. He’s running the ball like I know he can and he knows he can.

“He’s definitely made a mark for himself in this league. People should recognize that playmakers don’t have to be tall receivers. They can just be a playmaker. They can be short, big, tall, skinny, whatever. You know they’re going to make plays.”

Jones-Drew can count Harrison among his, um, biggest admirers.

“My favorite running backs are guys like Jones-Drew, (Darren) Sproles, LaDainian (Tomlinson) – smaller backs, guys people say are too small. Then they go and perform at the level they perform at in the NFL, you have to respect that. I really appreciate and respect what they’re doing.”

Like Harrison’s recent yardage stats, the respect for him is growing too.

The Browns (4-11) have won three straight games, primarily behind a running game that has churned up an average of more than 160 yards in three consecutive games for the first time since 1978.

Quarterback Derek Anderson doesn’t expect things to change this week against Jacksonville (7-8).

“We’ll stay on the same page with the things we’ve been doing offensively, control the ball and make good decisions,” Anderson said, before nodding with affection toward Harrison.

“And let the little dog run.”

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