Lining up for return duty

Allen Rossum enters training camp as the 49ers’ main man on kickoff and punt returns. But who else can handle the chores?


Question: Who do you see as the prohibitive favorite to return punts and kickoffs? Allen Rossum? Is he a lock to make the team especially with the plethora of WR’s we have? So if Rossum doesn’t make the team or is injured who takes the reins? If Battle makes the team I see him as the leading candidate for punts. If Kory Sheets makes the team does he slot into the kickoff return role? Can Ziegler project into a punt returner? I don’t see many other options unless you want to go the safe route with Michael Robinson as your KR. (Otis4949)


My answer: Thank you for that six-part question (along with a couple statements thrown in for good measure).


You can’t find too much fault with anything Rossum did last year during his first season with the 49ers. He averaged 26.8 yards on 47 kickoff returns, and had a 14.9 average on 15 punt returns (with seven fair catches). Rossum, who turns 34 in October, handled all of his chances flawlessly.


The 49ers re-signed Rossum to a one-year contract. While he is not a “lock” to win a roster spot, Rossum is the “prohibitive favorite” to win the jobs to return kickoffs and punts in 2009.


OK, so now let’s take a look at the players behind Rossum . . .


Delanie Walker took over on kickoff returns when Rossum was injured last season. He had 13 returns for a 19.8 average. Walker will almost certainly make the 49ers’ 53-man roster this season and be active on game days, so he remains as a possible fill-in.


Also, Michael Robinson plays on all special teams. He performed the duty as one of the deep men on kickoffs. He generally lines up around the 10-yard line, several yards in front of Rossum. Robinson returned six kickoffs for a 22.5 average.


Two players who will be in battles to earn roster spots could also handle that duty. Receiver Micheal Spurlock did a fine job as the Buccaneers’ return man in 2007. He became the first player in Tampa Bay history to return a kickoff for a touchdown. He had averaged 27.8 yards on 16 kickoff returns and did not fumble. And undrafted rookie Kory Sheets has experience as a return man from his time at Purdue.


Spurlock can also return punts. He handled seven chances for the Bucs in 2007.


Also, Arnaz Battle was a good return man for the 49ers in 2004. He averaged 8.6 yards a return, with a touchdown, on 31 returns (with 20 fair catches).


Zeigler had never handled punts in his life before being thrust into emergency duty late last season. He did not get any return yards on two returns and three fair catches, but at least he didn’t fumble, either.


No. 1 cornerback Nate Clements is sure-handed as a return man, but the 49ers want to avoid using him back there for any extended period of time. (Tarell Brown also proved he can return punts in college, but he has not been used in that capacity since coming to the 49ers.)


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Jerry Rice will be featured Thursday evening (4 p.m., PT, but check your local listing) on ESPN’s “Homecoming.” Steve Young and Eddie DeBartolo will also appear on the hour-long show. The segment was filmed in late May. Rice spoke to the team after one of the practice sessions.


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On a sad note, former 49ers security man Ricky Sandoval passed away last week after an inspirational three-year fight with pancreatic cancer.


After leaving the 49ers to become director of security for the Detroit Lions in 2001, I saw him only a handful of times. But he always greeted me with a smile and a handshake. My thoughts are with Gael, his wife of 14 years.


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UPDATE (5:17 p.m.): The 49ers claimed undrafted rookie Brit Miller after the Panthers released him. Miller (6-0, 251) played linebacker at Illinois, but the 49ers will move him to fullback.


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