BEREA — A.J. Ouellette heard the audible from quarterback Garrett Gilbert and hustled over from the receiver position to the backfield.
As Ouellette lined up behind the third-string quarterback and awaited the snap from the 5-yard line, he could feel it. Coach Freddie Kitchens stood just a few yards behind him and stared right at his back. Ouellette was in for an unpleasant chat if he made a misstep on the play.
The ball was snapped, and Ouellette flanked to the right for a screen pass. He made the catch, put his head down and hoped for the best after he dove between two defenders, who were a second late from stopping Ouellette at the goal line.
The whistle blew, and no one — not even Ouellette — celebrated.
It was the Ohio alumnus’ first touchdown since he joined the Browns’ training camp six days earlier when Duke Johnson Jr. became the third Browns running back to suffer an injury.
Ouellette is still with the Browns 10 days after he signed a camp contract. His spot will be in jeopardy when running backs Kareem Hunt and Johnson return from injuries, but he could suit up for his first true NFL game experience Thursday when the Browns begin their preseason against the Washington Redskins.
The third leading rusher in Ohio history is one of hundreds of undrafted NFL players hoping to find a home. Most of them live on a day-to-day basis hoping to avoid the dreaded call from a team assistant letting them know their tryout is over.
He has already received that call three times. The first was from the New Orleans Saints. Next, the Kansas City Chiefs. Most recently, the Green Bay Packers.
“You get a little angry at the other team, but it’s a business,” Ouellette said. “Luckily, it led me to Cleveland. I couldn’t pick a better team, a better coaching staff and better teammates. I’m liking what I’m doing right here, and I’m liking who I’m with.”
Ouellette joined Ohio as a walk-on in 2014 and graduated in May as one of the most well-liked and successful running backs in program history. The Bobcats won two bowl games in Ouellette’s last two seasons, and he finished third in Ohio history with 3,620 career rushing yards and fourth with 32 touchdowns.
The Browns called Ouellette when he was at the Enhance U Sports Performance gym in Dayton. Ouellette hugged and gave a high-five to his wife, Haley, before they raced home to pack their bags and head to the Browns headquarters.
“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,‘” Haley said. “Of all the teams I imagined calling, for some reason, Cleveland just wasn’t there. It wasn’t in my mind. So naturally, I got super excited, and we had our little moment of excitement.”
Before he left, Ouellette posted the news on his Instagram. The next day, he had over 800 new followers and eventually had to shut off the app’s notifications.
Ouellette already had a few NFL practices under his belt before his first day with the Browns. None of those practices, however, were open to fans. The nerves hit Ouellette when he stepped onto the grass and saw over 2,000 fans pack the bleachers, which the Browns expanded to accommodate heavy fan interest after they acquired wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. among several other Pro Bowl-caliber players in the offseason.
Then, Ouellette heard the chants. They weren’t loud, and they didn’t come from a large group of fans, but it was enough to forget about the nerves.
“OU! Oh yeah!”
Ouellette couldn’t feel too comfortable, though. He’s 5 feet, 9 inches tall, only knew a handful of plays and, at first glance, looked more like a specialist than a running back. His jersey number was No. 1, typically reserved for kickers and punters in the NFL.
Defensive players take advantage of matchups with Ouellette. The Browns have practiced in pads each day since Ouellette’s arrival, but defenders rarely hit veteran players. They target runners like Ouellette and hope a big hit will catch the eye of a coach.
No hit against Ouellette, however, has been too hard. Whenever he’s tackled, he gets up and runs down the field as if it never happened.
“I just got to go out and prove myself,” Ouellette said. “You just got to do your best technique, and make sure you’re making plays out there.”
Ouellette is still standing after a week with the Browns. He’s slowly learned the offensive playbook and still checks periodically with coaches and other players about where he’s supposed to run each play.
That’s all normal for an undrafted player, but it can all end with a phone call. Ouellette hopes that call never comes.
“I’m more of a one-day-at-a-time grinder,” Ouellette said. “What’s in front of me is what I’m going to attack. I just know that whatever happens, God will have a plan.”
Ouellette has been one of the last players off the field to sign autographs after each Browns practice. Some fans remember Ouellette from his time with the Bobcats, but most know him as a random player, special only because he’s wearing a Browns practice jersey.
It never matters for Ouellette. He autographs each ball, sign and jersey fans hand his way.
So, when the fans’ autograph attention quickly moved from Ouellette to star quarterback Baker Mayfield, who stood a few yards to Ouellette’s right, Ouellette cut away from the fans and jogged back to the locker room.
“Hey!” a kid yelled to Ouellette near the end of the field. “Autograph, please?”
He turned around, set his helmet down and ran over to him.