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Comfort zone

Browns TE Carlson getting ready for upcoming season from childhood home

AP File Photos Cleveland Browns tight end Stephen Carlson welcomes the competition of a crowded position group heading into the 2020 NFL season.

In his apartment in the Cleveland suburbs, Browns’ second-year tight end Stephen Carlson has a framed No. 89 jersey from his first NFL game last November at Denver.

Also housed there is the football from his first NFL reception from quarterback Baker Mayfield, which just happened to be for a touchdown in a nationally televised, primetime affair against arch-rival Pittsburgh a couple weeks later.

But the Jamestown native hasn’t seen much of those mementos the last few months as he has temporarily traded his digs in northwest Ohio for more familiar ones on his hometown’s northside. Instead of working out at the Browns’ training facility in Berea, Carlson has been lifting weights in the garage of his childhood home and running pass routes on the grass field at Washington Middle School a few blocks away.

Welcome to the “new normal,” courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely been challenging,” Carlson said Friday morning, “but it’s been challenging for every job. For me, the most challenging part is staying motivated to get the workouts in everyday, whether it’s going up to Strider Field or going down to the Washington Middle School field and running a conditioning workout all by myself. It’s tough without teammates and friends out there running with me, pushing me and lifting with me.

“But I think, with everything, you just have to find a way to do it. It’s probably not going to be the way you’ve always done it, but if you care about it like I care about football, I’m going to find a way to get these workouts in.”

Carlson stays in touch with teammates and coaches through regular multiple Zoom meetings each week, while his coaches monitor his lifting progress via film. And earlier this spring he caught passes from Jamestown High School quarterback Trey Drake at Strider Field.

“The past couple weeks it’s been tough (to find time to work out with Trey),” Carlson said. “I have these mandatory meetings and mandatory lifts, and the time usually overlaps where I can’t get to the throwing sessions. Hopefully in the next couple weeks we can find a time again, but it was good working with him. I think it benefited us both.

“Obviously, it’s not the exact same ball as Baker (throws), but it’s good for me to get out, run some routes and get some conditioning. I think it’s helping Trey out. I try to give him some tips here and there, maybe on nutrition, speed stuff and workout things that he can do to better his game. It’s benefited both of us.”

Carlson, who now checks in at 250 pounds (up 7 pounds from last season), also believes strongly in the Browns’ new coaching staff, led by head coach Kevin Stefanski.

“I met him face to face a couple times early in February, and I liked him right from the jump. … He’s an Ivy League guy … and I like the values he’s trying to instill in us and the ideals he wants the team to be about. … The coaches are going to hold us accountable, make us be disciplined and really treat everybody the same and make it all about the work.”

Stefanski is a strong proponent of the use of tight ends in his offensive scheme. To that end, the Browns signed two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper as a free agent and drafted Harrison Bryant this spring to bolster a depth chart that already includes Carlson, David Njoku, Pharoah Brown and Nate Weiting, a rookie from Iowa.

“I spent a week at an Airbnb with Hooper down in Texas a couple weeks ago when they were throwing down there,” Carlson said. “He’s a great guy and I really enjoyed learning from him, just in one week. He’s got a lot of experience and he was very willing to kind of get me better and try and teach everything to me.

“It’s nothing I didn’t expect. I know I have to compete every day. It’s going to be a fun training camp, going after it on offense, special teams and trying to prove why I deserve to be on the team again. I’m looking forward to it.

Carlson, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in April 2019, is coming off a rookie season in which he played in nine games, caught five passes for 51 yards and the aforementioned touchdown against the Steelers. He also contributed on special teams. With a year under his belt, the Princeton University graduate feels even more confident as he prepares for the 2020 campaign.

“Last year coming in, changing positions, being an undrafted guy from a smaller school, I didn’t know exactly what I was capable of,” Carlson said. “I kind of doubted myself a little bit here and there. Now, after going through a season, I can hang with everybody in the league and I’m confident in my abilities. … I learned so much in that one season and I have so much to build off of. I know exactly what to expect, I know exactly what I have to do to get on the field. I think I have a very narrow mindset of exactly what I have to do. I’m willing to do whatever to achieve those goals to make the team again.”

With the timetable for the players to return to their team training facilities still unknown, Carlson will continue his conditioning workouts at Washington Middle School and his lifting in his garage, while participating in Zoom meetings from the bedroom he grew up in as a youngster.

The background for such “chats” with his Cleveland teammates and coaches include Carlson’s old Gus Macker 3-on-3 and Tom Buttafaro League YMCA Basketball League trophies as well as hardware from his all-state high school career with the Red Raiders.

“I know the work I’m doing now — like in my garage — is going to benefit me, benefit me this season and in the future,” he said. “When I’m working out, I’m thinking how hard other people are working. I’m just trying to work a little bit harder so I have a little leg up on people when the season comes.

“Some people may be slacking off a little bit and relaxing a little. I’m trying to do the opposite of that and work harder than I have before.”

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