The 49ers made it a point this offseason to improve their special teams, particularly their kickoff-coverage unit.
But six games into the 2013 season, one special teams unit has been consistently mediocre – the punt-return team.
The 49ers are tied for 18th in the NFL, averaging just 7.1 yards per return. And punt returner Kyle Williams has twice as many fair catches (16) as returns (8).
This week, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Williams actually has been good in the role and has made wise decisions.
“Those fair catches aren’t all on Kyle,” Harbaugh told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “He does a good job of knowing whether to fair catch or return.”
Many of the fair catches, said Harbaugh, are a result of the 49ers being unable to consistently block the punting team’s gunners. Williams, too, said the situations have called for him to make fair catches rather than risk crucial mistakes.
“They’re kicking it short and putting it in a spot where gunners are able to make a play on me and force a fair catch,” Williams told Inman.
But it’s possible that as the season progresses, the 49ers could make a switch at punt returner to add a spark to their return game and get better field position. Running back LaMichael James, an almost forgotten piece of the 49ers’ offense, was electric in four games late last season as a rookie returner on kickoffs, averaging 29.8 yards on 14 returns in the regular season, and he’s been working in practice as a punt returner.
Plus, he has experience. In his final year for the Oregon Ducks in 2011, James averaged 10.7 yards per punt return and returned one for a touchdown.
This week, when asked about James’ lack of activity this season – he has just seven rushing attempts while ranking as the No. 4 running back option behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and short-yardage specialist Anthony Dixon – Harbaugh told reporters that James’ time will come. Though he’s been inactive for some games this season, Harbaugh says James will get a chance to show the explosiveness he showed as a rookie, when he took over Hunter’s role when Hunter was lost to injury.
“There’s going to come a time, like last year, where he’s fully in the mix, and that time will come,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers (4-2) will travel to Tennessee for a game Sunday against the Titans (3-3), and it’s possible James could be added to the punt-return mix, or as a running back – though he was made inactive for this past Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals.
“His development’s been fine,” Harbaugh told the Bay Area media, when asked about James. “He’ll be back playing. … LaMichael’s a very good player and he is a very valuable member of our team.”
Earlier this season, James admitted he’d had some trouble in the past fielding punts. But he's better now.
“I struggled with it,” James said this summer. “But I never held my head low and said I’m going to quit doing it. It was something I said I was going to get out there and get better and do each day.”
The result: Harbaugh called him “a trusted agent back there” to handle punt and kickoff returns.
Now, it’s just a matter of James waiting for another chance to prove himself.