LaMichael James 49ers punt returnerWe can’t spend all of the next few months discussing who’ll play receiver alongside Anquan Boldin, but luckily there are a few other positions that are wide open. One is the role of punt returner, which can be pretty important during games where the San Francisco 49ers’ defense is successful.

Six players returned punts at Tuesday afternoon’s practice.

  • Quinton Patton
  • Ricardo Lockette
  • Chad Hall
  • B.J. Daniels
  • Perrish Cox
  • LaMichael James

Out of that group, James is probably the favorite based on collegiate experience alone. His chief competition at the position of punt returner probably comes from Kyle Williams, who took part in team drills but isn’t cleared for all activities yet and probably won’t be until training camp.

Conveniently enough, two of the half dozen San Francisco 49ers who talked to the media after Tuesday’s OTAs practice/workout were Williams and James. James returned 15 punts in his last season with the Oregon Ducks, averaging just over 9 yards per return and scoring one touchdown in the process.

James ended last season as the 49ers’ No. 1 kickoff returner. He also spent a lot of his rookie season stationed about 50 yards from a Jugs machine, trying to get better at the most difficult task when it comes to returning punts: catching punts. According to James, all that work paid off.

“It’s kind of like tying the shoes, now. I have to give credit to Brad Seely and Tracy (Smith). Without them, I don’t think I would even be back there catching punts like I am today. They worked me, every single day I did it last year. Stayed after practice, helping me out,” said James, who sounded ready for the mental challenge of this new task for the first time — since joining the 49ers, anyway.

“Confidence is good. I think it was just a confidence thing. Just catching the ball, seeing it come off an NFL punters, a little different than college. The wind’s a little different,” James said, which led to my question:

Is it possible to prepare for the wind at Candlestick here at practice?

“No. You really can’t. You’ve just got to see the ball. I think judging the ball is key. Even though you have more wind in Candlestick, it’s really just judging the ball and knowing where it’s going to land and studying the nose,” James replied.

Here’s the question I asked Williams:

With Ted Ginn no longer here, the No. 1 punt returner job is open. Is that something you’re gunning for?

“Yeah, definitely. I want to help this team in any way possible. If that’s on the punts, kickoffs, whatever we got to do or whatever they need me to do, I’m in there. We’re going to have to figure that stuff out when it comes to camp and I’m allowed to participate more and get in the mix a little more. But we’ll figure it out, I’m ready to go for whatever,” Williams said.

Here’s how the potential punt returners compare in terms of experience:

Kyle Williams 49ers punt returner— Williams returned four punts last year, making him the only person to return one besides Ted Ginn, who returned 32 punts during the regular season and three during the playoffs. Over his NFL career he has returned 9 punts for 109 yards during the regular season. He returned 9 punts for 76 yards two seasons ago in the playoffs, but as we all know that only tells a small part of the story. At Arizona State, Williams returned 130 punts for 764 yards (5.9 yd avg) and no scores.

— James returned 17 punts as an Oregon Duck, averaging 8.1 yards each time and scoring one touchdown in the process.

— Hall has returned 10 punts in his NFL career for 107 yards. At Air Force he returned 26 punts for 194 yards (7.5 yd avg).

— Patton returned 13 punts for 27 yards in 2011, and didn’t return one punt in 2012.

— Cox returned three punts for seven yards and fumbled once in 2010 for the Broncos. At Oklahoma St. he returned 79 punts for 694 yards (8.8 yd avg) and two touchdowns.

— Lockette and Daniels have no punt returning experience to speak of.