Wide receiver Bruce Ellington has been handling both kick and punt returns during the 49ers' recent "football school" and he expects to do both at the team's rookie minicamp that begins Friday. "It's something I'm working on, and hopefully I can get in this year and make some plays," said Ellington, a fourth-round pick from South Carolina.
At this point last year, Kyle Williams was the team's most experienced return man with LaMichael James serving as his understudy. Williams was released during the 2013 season while James, unhappy with his workload at running back, has stayed away from the 49ers' voluntary practices so far and is open to a trade.
Both general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh have lauded James' return skills in recent weeks and have spoken as if he will be part of the team in 2014. Still, they must come up with alternatives this offseason even if James remains.
Ellington appears to be a top candidate even though mostly handled kickoffs at South Carolina. He returned three punts total, all of them in 2013. Ellington said former SMU cornerback Kenneth Acker, a fifth-round pick, also has been returning punts in recent weeks and that second-round pick Carlos Hyde, a running back from Ohio State, has been among those handling kickoffs. Acker handled 14 punt returns at SMU; Hyde had two kickoff returns at Ohio State in 2011.
Aside from James, receiver Devon Wylie (Granite Bay High) and cornerback Perrish Cox have experience returning punts in the NFL. Neither is eligible to attend the weekend rookie minicamp.
-- Matt Barrows