SANTA CLARA -- No punt returner in the history of college football has been as dynamic as Dante Pettis.
In four seasons at Washington, one out of every 10 punt returns he fielded ended up in the end zone. Pettis averaged 14.2 yards per return and registered a college-football-record nine career touchdowns.
Yet, in his two seasons with the 49ers, Pettis was a non-factor in the return game. As a rookie, he averaged 3.0 yards on nine returns. He was never used on special teams in his second season, as his playing time on offense dwindled to nothing.
Pettis fell out of favor as a wide receiver. He has gotten off to a better start during training camp this summer. And, now, he has a chance to make a great contribution to the team as a whole.
So what does Pettis have to do in 2020 to earn coach Kyle Shanahan's trust and earn the opportunity to make a contribution in the return game?
“He's got to be better than the other guys,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, succinctly.
“We’ve got a number of guys who can do that. I think in order to be better than other guys, it starts with who can catch it the best. No matter how good a guy is back there, you can't put a guy back there who can't consistently catch it.”
Pettis did not look comfortable fielding the ball off the foot of NFL punters in his first two years with the club. He muffed two of his nine attempts as a rookie, and after struggling in practices, he never even earned a chance in 2019.
The 49ers need a new return man to open this season, as Richie James is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a fractured wrist.
James proved to be reliable last season in that role. In the regular season, he averaged 8.0 yards on 33 returns without a fumble. Other than a muffed punt to open the Super Bowl, James gave the 49ers what they wanted.
This summer, Pettis, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Taylor, Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson appear to be in competition for the role to open the season on Sept. 13 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Shanahan said the ability to catch the ball consistently is the first factor to weigh. After that, the team has to consider consistency against big-play ability.
Among the team's wide receivers, Pettis is behind Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. He has made significant strides on offense. And if he can field punts comfortably, Pettis will get his chance to make an impact on special teams.
“We know he's got some play-making ability,” Shanahan said. “If he catches it out here consistent, he’ll get those opportunities in the game and then we'll see how good his average is and how many big plays he makes.”