The San Francisco 49ers know all too well the importance of having a sure-handed punt returner. Rehashing Kyle Williams’ two fumbles in the 2011 NFC Championship Game often the garners the “too soon” reaction even more than three years later.
With LaMichael James expected to be out a month after dislocating an below over the weekend, the 49ers will go the majority of training camp without an experienced option, thus allowing James’ potential backup to get some much-needed repetition.
That experience will come in handy, because the candidates to take over for James once the preseason have returned a combined 10 punts throughout their NFL careers. And seven of those belong to Devon Wylie, who is a long shot to make the 53-man roster at best.
Since taking over those duties midway through last season, James averaged 10.9 yards (tenth in the league) and didn’t lose a fumble, although he did muff a pair of punts, including one in last year’s conference title game in Seattle that was recovered by Darryl Morris.
The most likely candidate to take over as the team’s primary punt returner is rookie Bruce Ellington, who spent time working as South Carolina’s primary kick returner during his first two seasons with the Gamecocks. But had just three punt returns, averaging 5.3 yards a pop.
"(Ellington) appears to have the whereabouts to do it. Wherewithal," Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday.
Ellington will be competing with corner Perrish Cox, who has only returned three punts in 2010 during his rookie season with the Broncos. However, he entered the league with 60 returns under his belt during his four seasons at Oklahoma State. Second-year wideout Quinton Patton has also been fielding punts in practice.
Perhaps Ellington would have been the team’s prominent return man when he got to South Carolina initially. But the team had Ace Sanders handle the job for two seasons. And by 2013, Ellington was a key piece of the offense the team didn’t want to risk injury to by returning punts. But as Sanders’ understudy, Ellington still got a volume of reps during practice.
"I think that’s the thing, come out here every day and just catch them," Ellington said. "The other things will just fall into place with guys blocking and me just being athletic and making plays."
The natural fear surrounding an inexperienced returner is ball security. But Ellington, a former high school quarterback and running back entering just his fourth season as a receiver, never fumbled during his collegiate career.
And because he’s constantly been learning new positions throughout his young football life, the curve to learning punt returner might not be as steep.
"In this game you got to learn fast because the game is fast," Ellington said.
Learning fast has been key to Ellington’s early development since getting drafted in May. He has made good impressions despite being shelved for the first four practices of camp with an apparent ankle injury.
"He’s looked great when he’s been out there,” Colin Kaepernick said. “He’s been on top of mentally which is a huge thing as a rookie. He doesn’t play like a rookie. He’s not out there thinking about things or worried about making mistakes. he’s playing fast, he’s making plays, so we’re excited about him."
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