Tailback LaMichael James, who has been a healthy scratch the last three games for the 49ers, said today he hasn't been given any notification that he'll take over punt-return duties from Kyle Williams. But he's preparing as if that will be the case.
"Most definitely - gotta have that approach to that game," said James, who added he's been taking more punt-return repetitions during practice this week. "Even after practice," he said. "Just seeing the ball and, you know, trying to improve."
Jim Harbaugh has hinted recently about a bigger role - or any role at all - for James, a second-round draft pick last year. A natural spot seems to be on returns where Williams struggled in the most recent game against the Jaguars. Williams fumbled once - he recovered the loose ball himself - but misjudged two other kicks. He has not committed a turnover this season but hasn't added much pop, either. He leads the league in fair catches.
James, meanwhile, flailed as a punt returner in the 2012 preseason. He handled that job for one season at Oregon but admitted today he "free-styled it" it in college, never thinking about the wind or studying the opposing punter. "I feel like I'm well-conditioned for it now," he said.
He also made his NFL punt-catching debut in August at Candlestick Park, which, counter-intuitively for most of the country, is windier in the summer than it is in October, November and December. "No one really told me that the wind was like that," he said. "So I had a rude awakening."
That awakening, however, forced James to improve as a returner. And he was noticeably better this past preseason. "It was a challenge for me. I'm not going to sit here and lie about it," he said. "I practiced each and every day."
-- Matt Barrows