BEREA - It hasn't been easy spotting any of the Browns starting linebackers during training camp.
You have to look to the stationary bikes or the motorized cart that wheels off injured players, or the training room to find one. Chris Gocong is gone for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. Scott Fujita hasn't been seen in more than a week, and until Sunday D'Qwell Jackson was working out on a bike as he nursed a sore shoulder.
The way things have gone the starters when the season open Sept. 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles might be Kaluka Maiava, L.J. Fort and James Michael Johnson. First off the bench could be Craig Robertson.
The collective experience of the aforementioned four is three years, all owned by Maiava. Fort is a rookie free agent. Johnson was drafted in the fourth round this year and Robertson is in his first training camp after being signed to the practice squad late last season.
"It's unfortunate," Jackson said of the rash of injuries that have hit the linebackers and the defense in general. "It's hard to say you expect injuries. At some point of the season some guys may get nicked up, but other guys have to be willing to step up and fill that role."
At least Jackson is back on the field after sitting out the first two preseason games. With several young linebackers possibly getting playing time, the return of Jackson, who led the defense in tackles last season, was crucial.
"They ask a ton of questions," Jackson said. "I did the same thing when I was a rookie. Just being on the field and talking to them as the play comes just to get them comfortable. The more we talk and communicate, the more we can feed off each other and understand how each other plays."
In a 35-10 win over the Green Bay Packers last Thursday the starting linebackers were Fort in the middle, flanked by Johnson and Maiava. Fort was the FCS National Defensive Player of the Year last season at Northern Iowa.
The threesome stood up well to the challenge.
"The good news is while he (Jackson) has been out, I've watched some young linebackers get in there and make the best of their opportunities," coach Pat Shurmur said. "Of course, we want all of our guys that we've slotted as starters to be out there working all the time."
Fort and Robertson entered camp as longshots to make the final roster, but their chances have improved. At the very least both could stick for their abilities on special teams.
Robertson wasn't picked in the 2011 draft after completing a four-year career at North Texas State.
"We claimed him because he was a player we had liked," Shurmur said. "When there are players there that you can claim that you feel good about, then you go get them. It's a credit to our scouting department that they saw his skill and ability and brought him here."
Fujita's situation is complicated on two levels. First is his injury. The other is a pending three-game suspension for his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
Fujita has had trouble staying healthy as he nears the end of an 11-year career. He finished each of the last two seasons on injured reserve, hurting a knee in 2010 and breaking a hand last year.
With Gocong gone and Fujita not a certainty to play much, Jackson needs to have another big year.
"Chris was looking forward to a big year this year," Jackson said. "You can't replace a guy like him. Those younger guys have a great opportunity to step up and show people they can make a play."