At the University of Washington, Dante Pettis was a terror as a record-setting punt returner.
The current 49ers wide receiver returned an NCAA-record nine punts for touchowns and averaged 14.2 yards per return. As a senior for the Huskies, he averaged a whopping 20.4 yards per return – and scored four TDs – on 21 punts.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team often had trouble stopping Pettis’ big-return plays, once praised Pettis as a “courageous” returner who had a terrific combination of speed, quickness and “the ability to make you miss.”
But with the 49ers in his rookie year in 2018, it was a bit odd that Pettis wasn’t used much on special teams. The 49ers had drafted the best punt returner in Division I college history, yet he had only nine return opportunities and averaged just 3.0 yards.
But that may change in 2019.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, 49ers special teams coach Richard Hightower says Pettis will get another chance when training camp begins to win the No. 1 punt return job.
“We’re going to play the best guy back there,” said Hightower this week, during organized team activities (OTAs). “That’s been coach (Kyle) Shanahan’s philosophy and that’s our philosophy.”
Pettis will be in the mix for the job with at least a couple of others, including fellow holdover wideouts Trent Taylor and Richie James. Taylor averaged 7.8 yards on 10 returns in 2018, while James, a rookie, had a 6.8 average on 12 attempts.
Even if Pettis plays a more prominent role as a wide receiver in the passing game, he believes that won’t keep him from being an effective punt returner. At Washington, he did both well. He’s eager to show what he can do.
“They’re going to put the best guy back there,” Pettis told Branch.
If that’s the case, Pettis could have a much larger role in 2019 as a return man.