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College football: Returning punts one of football's toughest jobs

Good hands, skills, speed and confidence are just some of the things coaches look for when choosing a punt returner.
BY MIKE BALDWIN AND GINA MIZELL, Staff Writers,; Modified: April 6, 2012 at 11:03 am •  Published: April 5, 2012

“I'd love for Gilbert to be back there,” said receivers coach Kasey Dunn, who is working with punt return candidates. “But at the same time, he can't be everywhere. We've got some other guys that are pretty capable right now. They're working hard at doing it.”

All punt return candidates constantly are reminded of two golden rules: 1) if you don't catch the punt, run away from a bouncing ball, and 2) if you catch the punt, don't fumble even if someone racing downfield clocks you.

The 49ers' Williams violated both rules. His two turnovers in the NFC title game led to two New York scores.

“It's just focus,” Stills said. “You have to focus on the ball and still peek a few times to see players coming at you, if you have the proper blocking to know if you're going to fair catch it or not.”

That's the tricky part. The safe play is to wave your right hand in the air, signal for a fair catch. But every punt returner's dream is to take one to the house.

Punt returners often have adventurous personalities. There aren't a lot of volunteers for a job where the punt cover team, running full speed, hopes to make highlight reels with a jarring hit on a return man.

Texas A&M defensive back Dustin Harris led the nation last season, averaging 18.6 yards a return, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown against Kansas.

Harris, a senior, has returned punts since junior high, a skill he hopes will land an NFL job a year from now.

Confidence is a must for punt returners.

“I feel I'm the most comfortable person back there right now,” Stills said. “I'm just trying to improve on those skills ... I really like it. It's a lot of fun. It's easy to make people miss. They're coming at you full speed, out of control.”

Williams is one of the top punt returners in the NFL. He finished sixth in the league with an 8.4 average. But his NFC title game gaffes were a punt returner's nightmare.

“I felt his pain because I've been in the same situation,” Harris said. “When it happens you have to move past it. There are a lot of big plays in every game. But it made a big difference. The 49ers should have won and been the team to beat the Patriots.”