By Marty Gitlin
You can’t learn much about Ishmaa’ily Kitchen talking to Ishmaa’ily Kitchen.
Not that he’s unfriendly. Quite the opposite, really. He’s simply quiet and painfully shy. But NFL running backs are learning that the Browns rookie defensive tackle is anything but shy on the football field. The former Cardinal Mooney High and Kent State standout has been surprisingly productive in limited play this season.
Limited play is more than he expected to receive. But the 330-pound behemoth sporting long, thick dreadlocks has shown a propensity to clog up the middle and stop ballcarriers. Though he remains well behind far more ballyhooed starters Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin on the depth chart, Kitchen has worked his way into the rotation.
“It’s been a good situation,” Kitchen said. “I’m real happy and blessed I got a chance to play as a rookie. If you have a goal in life, you work hard and it will come true.”
Kitchen helped Mooney win state titles his sophomore and senior years and compile a 48-4 record in his four seasons. He earned All-Ohio, All-Steel Valley Conference and All-Northeast Ohio District teams in his last two years with the Cardinals.
He did not appear NFL-bound through most of his career with the Golden Flashes. Though the redshirt freshman played in every game his sophomore and junior years, he didn’t take the next step until he received six starts his senior season.
He recorded 22 tackles, including 4.5 for losses, and added three sacks. He also earned a spot in the Casino del Sol All-Star Game, but was not considered a strong NFL prospect. It was no surprise that he went undrafted.
Kitchen was signed as a rookie free agent by Baltimore in May and waived on Aug. 31. The Browns signed him the next day.
“We were moving towards him after last year’s draft, then when he became available from Baltimore, we knew a little more about him and the personnel department knew quite a bit about him,” defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “He’s a tough, big, stout guy, which we like.
“He can hold the point against the double team, he can play his gap and control it, plus he’s a good teammate.”
Coach Pat Shurmur believes some in the Ravens organization felt immediate regrets.
“We picked him up and, at first, we didn’t know much about him, but we got a bunch of screams from Baltimore,” Shurmur said. “It was like, ‘gosh darn it, we wish we could have gotten him back.’ He’s given us some good snaps. He’s a fine football player who we think will develop into more of a player than he was this year.”
Kitchen has recorded six solo tackles and 11 assists with one game remaining. He has been used strictly as a run-stopper. Defensive end Frostee Rucker feels the true test for Kitchen if he yearns to be an every-down player will be developing his talents as a pass-rusher.
“He’s got a bright future,” Rucker said. “He’s strong and he’s a hard-working kid who gets football. As he matures he’s going to get more snaps. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, but we haven’t been using him a lot on passing downs. The mystery with him is going to be whether he can rush the passer.”
There is no longer a mystery about his ability to stop the run. That is a reflection not only on his size and strength, but his drive to establish himself in the NFL.
“I’m a hard-worker who tries to outwork the man across from me,” Kitchen said. “I have to keep working hard and get better every single day.”
So far, so good, according to fellow Browns defensive lineman Juqua Parker.
“He’s a good player,” Parker said. “He plays the run well. When he first came here no one could really move him off the ball. He has good size and strength. He’s strong. He plays the game with the mentality that he’s not going to let the guy across from him whoop him.”
But if Kitchen cannot prove himself in passing situations, he will remain a reserve. Jauron does not foresee a time in which he will be racking up sacks — quickness is not his forte. But the veteran coordinator understands that if Kitchen can push around offensive linemen with his size and strength, he can be effective.
“He’s one of those younger guys who can contribute and be a steady player that can work his way into a starting role or at the very least work his way into being a 15-to-30 snap player,” Jauron said. “I hate to pigeon hole anybody, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be a great pass rusher. But he can definitely push the pocket and if he can get an edge on a defender, he can get around him and be a good bull rusher.”
Jauron felt compelled to add one more compliment.
“He’s got a great name,” he said.
Kitchen would prefer to make a name for himself. But then, nobody figured he would start doing that this season.