Browns’ Little has sights set on making big impact

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 9, 2011

CLEVELAND (AP) — There’s something about Greg Little that sets him apart from the other Browns.

Maybe it’s his body, the V-shaped back and muscles rippling over muscles. Maybe it’s his fun-loving personality, the one that keeps his teammates smiling and a few laughing as he dances near his locker following practice. Maybe it’s his attitude, a swagger that drips of stardom — and has coach Pat Shurmur and team president Mike Holmgren taking a special interest in Little.

Or maybe it’s that the rookie wide receiver just might be Cleveland’s best playmaker.

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Shurmur spent a big chunk of the Browns’ bye week trying to figure out how to jump-start a West Coast offense lacking direction. There’s a lot to consider, but Shurmur may find the best solution is to get the ball more often to Little, who is ready to take on a bigger role.

“Yeah,” Little said, his eyes widening at the idea. “Any skill player on this team if you ask them, they want the ball.”

It may be time for the Browns (2-2) to force feed it to the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Little, one of those players who fit under the ’physical freak’ heading. A former running back, he’s imposing in stature and a nightmare for any defensive back — or linebacker for that matter — to handle.

“The guy’s as big as me,” said Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

Little’s role has steadily increased through four games, a result of his growing confidence as well as quarterback Colt McCoy’s trust that if he throws it toward Little, it will be caught.

Last week against Tennessee, Little had a team-high six receptions for 57 yards. He hauled in a 25-yarder and four of his receptions went for first downs. One week earlier, Little had three receptions on Cleveland’s game-winning touchdown drive against Miami. On each of them, Little broke tackles as he fought for yardage.

With the game was on the line, Little gave a glimpse of his potential.

“At that point in the game, it’s all about competing,” he said, quickly turning the discussion from his efforts to what the team accomplishes. “It’s all about beating the guy in front of you. That’s just kind of when your instincts take over as a football player, and you just go and not think. That’s what you see in us when we’re in those two-minute situations or just in a no-huddle offense. Guys are just going.

“We’re not jumping offsides. We’re not fumbling the ball on the snap. We’re not dropping passes. We’re just hitting it and we’re going.”

Spoken like a veteran, and not a first-year player. But Little does seem polished on and off the field.

There were some who wondered if the Browns were taking a huge risk when they selected Little in the second round. Despite a glaring need for a wideout, Browns general manager Tom Heckert passed on Julio Jones and traded down to first pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor before taking Little with the second-round pick he obtained from Atlanta.

Little was suspended for his final season at North Carolina, punished by the NCAA for accepting improper gifts from an agent. That alone may have raised red flags for many teams, but after doing an extensive background check on him, the Browns brought Little aboard. And he hasn’t given them a single reason to regret it.

Shurmur, though, has been keeping close tabs on his rookie. The first-year coach has chatted frequently with his young player since training camp opened.

Shurmur likes Little, sees his potential and doesn’t want to see him waste it.

“The extra talks are daily and it depends on what’s happened with what the talks relate to,” Shurmur said this week.

“It could be those (shoe) laces are going to cost you $5,000 to whatever. I enjoy him because he can make plays, I enjoy the fact that he likes to play the game and he’s a football player. I enjoy working with him. But, the talks they haven’t stopped, they’re pretty consistent.”

Holmgren, too, sees something special in Little.

“I like him,” Holmgren said. “Don’t tell him that.”

Little appreciates the added attention. He feels a connection with Shurmur like the one he had with Tar Heels coach Butch Davis, Cleveland’s coach from 2001-04.

“I like to gravitate to my coaches and have that joking-type relationship,” he said. “One time he (Shurmur) yelled at me and was like, ’does the yelling bother you?’ and I was like, ’coach, I’ve been yelled at before.’ We have that type of relationship where he can coach me how he wants and I can take it all in stride. I really enjoy being around him.”

Through four games, Little has 14 catches for 131 yards. The Browns are beginning to realize he might be their best weapon, and one they can unleash starting Oct. 16 at Oakland.

Little won’t demand the ball, it’s not his style. But that doesn’t mean he’ll shy away from asking Shurmur to be more involved in Cleveland’s offense.

“We have a relationship where I can suggest things to coach,” he said. “Even though I am a rookie when I see things on the field he takes some consideration to it and he’s not just ’Oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ Not only am I going to suggest things but I’ll ask for the ball.”

Shurmur loves Little’s desire, particularly on game day.

“Sunday is his favorite day,” he said. “When he puts that uniform on, he brightens up and he’s ready to roll. Not that he doesn’t practice hard, but theres certain things about days of the week that make guys shine and I think he does.”

Surrounded by reporters this week, Little didn’t need much prompting to do an impersonation of Davis, mimicking his former coach’s high-pitched Southern drawl.

He wouldn’t dare do an imitation of Shurmur, would he?

Little looked around and nodded.

“He doesn’t know about it,” he said. “But I do it in the locker room.”