You know by now that LeRoy Vann is competing to return punts and/or kickoffs for the 49ers this season. He has been sharing repetitions with Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams and Brandon Jones.
But Vann doesn’t want you to write him off as a cornerback just yet. Though he stands just 5-8½ and weighs 177 pounds, and though some analysts thought he’d be used at wide receiver in the NFL, the undrafted rookie from Florida A&M has looked capable at the corner during offseason practices. He seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
“I feel like since I came from a black college, and most everybody comes from the big D-I schools and whatnot, they’re not gonna look at my ability to play cornerback, because they feel like the talent is not as good as it is in D-I college,” Vann said recently. “But if you could play, you could play, and I know I could play cornerback, receiver… wherever they put me, I could play it.”
One thing you should know about LeRoy Vann: He is supremely confident. After working out for the Jacksonville Jaguars in March, he told Tallahassee.com: “If I get into the league by being on special teams, I’m going to be the best special-teams player ever to play the game.”
He’s the smallest guy in the locker room, and he comes from one of the smallest college programs. But Vann is no shrinking violent. He is a prolific tweeter, and a voluble presence in the locker room. Friday, he spent much of media-access time ragging on fellow rookie Anthony Dixon. Apparently, Vann had challenged Dixon to leap over a chair, and he was telling everyone who would listen that the running back had cleared the furniture with one leg while leaning the rest of his body to the side.
“A guy like LeRoy, you really have a better idea once you get in pads,” coach Mike Singletary said Friday. “He’s not the tallest guy, he’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s got a tremendous heart, I do know that. It’s just a matter of how it all works out. I just know he’s working his tail off. He’s a savvy kid, asks a lot of questions, he works hard. There’s a lot to work with there.”
To get a crack at playing cornerback, Vann will probably have to edge past the other kick returners. He certainly has a shot. He set an NCAA record with 11 combined kick returns for touchdowns, and is one of only five Football Championship Subdivision players to return both punts and kickoffs for at least 1,000 yards each. As a senior he averaged 20.2 yards on punt returns and scored five times.
Right now, no one really knows what he can do in the NFL. The 49ers haven’t tackled during the offseason, so the kick returners have been limited to catching the ball and running through empty space. At least Vann believes he has the ball-security thing down.
“I didn’t start punt returns and kick returns until my junior season,” he said. “So I didn’t start punt returning until, I think, like the fifth game of the season my junior year. And I didn’t know how to catch the punt. I used to catch the punt with my hands, like a receiver catching. Then I started standing out there, catching off the Jugs machine and the punter kicking to me, and started learning to catch it. And in the summertime going into our senior year, I used to take more than a hundred balls a day, and then I got real good at it. So I feel confident.”
Hey, when doesn’t he? Self esteem alone won’t get Vann a roster spot, but it certainly won’t be a hindrance when the action becomes meaningful.
“When the time comes, when it’s first preseason game and when it’s time for competition, everyone gonna show what they can do,” he said.