On Thursday night, former Bobcat standout A.J. Ouellette was hoping to make an impact — or at least an impression — during the Cleveland Browns first preseason game of the 2019 season.
But no matter if Ouellette shined, or got caught up in the numbers of the position, Ja’Vahri Portis isn’t going to dampen his belief in the former Ohio running back.
“If it wasn’t for A.J., honestly, I wouldn’t be here,” said Portis earlier this week.
“I have to give all my praise to that guy. He’s a great guy on and off the field. I want to give him the highest praise I can.”
Portis, a fourth-year junior running back with the Bobcats, is in fall camp and is one of six players at the position trying to carve out playing time in the backfield in 2019. The only reason Portis, a former and current walk-on after a stint on scholarship in the spring, is on the roster at all is because of Ouellette.
Portis, a Cincinnati Elder H.S. graduate, came to Ohio just last fall after trying to extend his playing career first in the NCAA Division II ranks at Urbana University (Ohio). After an injury cut short his 2016 season at Urbana, he finished 2017 with career numbers of 67 carries for 288 yards and four touchdowns.
When he transferred to Ohio and told a professor in one of his classes that he intended to walk on for the Bobcats, the professor set him up with someone who could help.
That someone was Ouellette.
“We had, like a meeting. We went to lunch,” Portis said. “He saw my film somewhere and he liked it.
“He’s the one who brought my film in and told (Ohio RB) Coach (Tim) Albin about me,” Portis continued. “I was trying to get that guidance. (The professor) basically linked me up with A.J., and from there on he led me step by step.”
Portis did the job on the scout team through 2018, and stuck through winter conditioning when he was temporarily placed on scholarship. He was the best back on the field during the opening portions of Ohio’s first scrimmage in spring camp, but a broken bone in his lower leg cut off his development at an important juncture.
Portis was always due to ‘lose’ his scholarship once the 2019 recruiting class arrived in Athens. But he did get a camp invite. And he’s been competing at the same level he showed in 2018 and in the early portion of the spring.
Portis, listed at 6-foot and 200 pounds, looks the part in the backfield. He’s not currently at the top of the depth chart, but he’s competing. He has a shot to appear on game days this fall.
“There’s a lot of people who have helped me here,” Portis said. “The training staff with my broken leg, getting me healthy. The offensive line doing what they do and getting me space.
“And Coach Albin, he’s been a huge part of me sticking here.”
And it all began thanks to a belief in himself, a chance meeting with Ouellette, and the power of a teammate trying to pay it forward. Portis knows about Ouellette’s story — the walk-on turned third-leading rusher in program history fairy tale — but values the person behind as much if not more.
And as for that scholarship, Portis will do his best to try to earn it again.
“That’s how I look at it. I earned it once. I can earn it again. That’s what I plan on doing.”
The day in camp
Ohio held another full-pads, morning practice inside Peden Stadium on Thursday. The Bobcats have yet to utilize any full-on tackling in any of the team segments, but the line play continues to be of the more physical variety — barring things like cut blocks of course.
In terms of personnel, there was little in the way of new developments. WRs Shane Hooks and Tyler Tupa remained out for the bulk of the practice, CB Jamal Hudson is running but not taking part in any drills, and RB Julian Ross stepped up his activity level in practice but did not participate in any team segments.
WR Jerome Buckner, poised and smooth on his routes through the early part of camp, was a non-participant.
DT Brian Arp dressed for practice, but did not participate. DE Amir Miller, who has looked good early in camp, was absent. CB Justin Birchette returned to practice in a limited capacity.
Freshmen OL Joe Oakes and RB Walter Wilbon remained planted as spectators on the sideline.
DE Will Evans had his most active day in camp yet, but was held out of the full 11-on-11 segments of practice.
There appeared to be one obvious injury as CB Kel Davis (back) couldn’t finish practice after an awkward landing in the end zone during red-zone one-on-one drills.
Odds and ends
— Walk-on quarterback Naylan Yates, a Vinton County H.S. grad, has been removed from the active roster. Yates was suspended for most of the 2018 season, but did take part in the 2019 spring camp. Ohio is working with just three quarterbacks in fall camp.
— Backup kicker/punter Corey Hare has voluntarily left the program. Freshman Tristian Vandenberg, who will assume scholarship status in January, will likely serve as the two-way back there for 2019.
— Repeating the practice adopted last August, Ohio has placed an off-color stripe (this time yellow) down the middle of the top of the helmet of all first-time players in the program. When a freshman has ‘bought in’ to what the program is about it camp, the stripe is removed. Freshman OL Parker Titsworth became the first freshman in 2019 to lose the stripe.
— Senior DEs Chukwudi Chukwu and Sam McKnight both had at least two clear pressures during team portions of practice. Three of the four pressures came when working against backup RT Felipe Fernandez. It highlights the concern that Frank Solich had about the position heading into camp.
— Speaking of OTs, I’ve been impressed early with freshman Thomas Aronokhale. I thought the Linsly School product — originally from Austria — might be projected as a guard, but he’s been penciled in as the third team left tackle at the start of camp. Aronokhale has been more effective, so far, than junior college transfer Gary Hoover. It doesn’t mean that won’t change, but that’s where it is right now.
— PK Louie Zervos did take some live-speed kicks during the field goal segment of practice. Zervos had hip surgery in the off season, and did not kick at all during the spring
— The one turnover in team portions of practice came when backup MLB Austin Clack stepped under a circle route from the RB, and picked off QB Joe Mischler.
— With Arp out of action on Thursday, it was sophomore DT Kaieem Caesar who took his place with the first team defense.
— With Buckner out, it was Cam Odom, Isiah Cox, Tyler Walton, and K.J. Minter most often lining up out wide with the first team offense.
— Play of the day? Odom made a fine over-the-top catch on CB Ilyaas Motley on a 50/50 ball early in practice. Motley had excellent coverage, but Odom made the tough catch.