SANTA CLARA — Dante Pettis, the all-time college record-holder with nine career punt return touchdowns, concentrated on being a wide receiver during his rookie season with the 49ers.
Pettis handled just 11 punts as a rookie, as he got injured on an early-season punt return and ended up missing four games. When he went back deep, he struggled to field the ball. Pettis had a 3.0 yard average on the nine punts he returned.
“I wouldn’t say Dante wasn’t effective as much as he didn’t have as many opportunities that hopefully he’ll have this year,” 49ers special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. “We’ve just got to get in there. First, we’ve got to catch the ball, that’s No. 1 -- take care of the football and secure the football to give it back to the offense. That’s our No. 1 job.”
There was the underlying thought that coach Kyle Shanahan wanted Pettis to concentrate on learning the playbook and honing his skills as a wide receiver before getting deeply involved in special teams.
This season, Pettis figures to be a starter from Week 1. But that does not preclude him from earning the job as the 49ers’ primary punt returner, Hightower said.
Pettis, Trent Taylor, Richie James and D.J. Reed have gotten the most work fielding punts through the first week of training camp.
“Kyle’s philosophy is put the best player out there that helps us win,” Hightower said. “I don’t know of him to be any other way than wanting to win games. So if Dante’s the best, then he’ll want Dante back there. If Trent’s the best, if whoever’s the best. D.J., Richie, we can go down the line, Kyle Shanahan is interested in one thing and that’s winning football games.”
James, Taylor and Pettis combined last season to average just 5.8 yards on 31 punt returns. Taylor had a strong rookie season in 2017 with a 9.4 average on 30 returns. But he struggled last season after being slow to return to full health and speed after undergoing offseason back surgery.
James and Reed showed promise on kickoff returns as rookies. James had a 97-yard touchdown return on a kickoff, and Reed averaged 30.2 yards on 11 kickoff returns, including one for 90 yards.
“What I’ve seen from those guys is a fierce competition right now in terms of those guys going out there trying to get it,” Hightower said.
“We’ve got a lot of different guys in there and the fun thing about this is one day one guy does a good job and then the next day the other guy steps up and does the better job and then another guy steps up and does the job.”
Matt Breida, who led the 49ers with 814 yards and an impressive 5.3-yard average last season, does not figure to be the team’s lead back this season with the addition of Tevin Coleman and the return of Jerick McKinnon. That opens the door for Breida to compete to handle kickoff returns, too.
Having a bevy of young options on punt and kickoff returns has prompted Hightower to shift his concerns to other areas of those special-teams units, he said.
“What I’m focused on now is the front line and the blocking,” Hightower said. “I want to block, because I know we’ve got guys that can return. That’s not a concern when I go to sleep at night.”