GLENDALE, Ariz. — One game. That’s all it took for Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to conclude that he had found his return specialist for 2017.
Yes, rookie running back T.J. Logan was that impressive Thursday against the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game. Unfortunately, that’s the last anyone will see of Logan until at least midway through the season after he suffered a dislocated left wrist in the preseason opener.
“It’s a shame,” Arians said.
So now what do the Cardinals do?
Arians listed three players — running back Kerwynn Williams plus rookies Chad Williams and Rudy Ford — who will attempt to fill the role of kickoff and punt returner.
Kerwynn Williams will get the first crack at it.
“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “They always say the more you can do — any way that you can contribute to the team, if you can find a way to make yourself more valuable, that’s always a smart thing to do.”
Going into his fifth NFL season, Williams last was positioned deep to receive kickoffs in 2015. That year he averaged 15.8 yards a return.
Williams, however, has never returned punts on the pro level.
“It’s not new to me,” he said, referring to his four years at Utah State, where he returned 11 punts for a total of 135 yards. “Returning punts is definitely a little bit tougher than returning kicks. (When returning) kicks there’s not really anyone right now in your face at the time. You have a lot of time to make decisions and stuff like that. But, I feel like if you stay fundamentally sound in catching your punts and you trust your teammates, I think, that makes it a lot easier to stand back there and catch those punts.”
Chad Williams, the Cardinals’ third-round pick out of Grambling State, returned punts in college but not kickoffs. He’s been working on the latter though post-practice here in training camp, getting pointers from some of the veterans like “squaring your body and squaring the ball before it actually gets there.”
Regardless of whether it’s returning kickoffs or punts, the key is “you have to look (the ball) in” to your hands, according to Williams, who likely will make his most immediate impact on special teams given the depth of wide receivers.
“I’m willing to play any special teams so it don’t really matter to me,” he said, smiling.
The third player, Ford, already has a lot on his plate. Drafted as a corner in the sixth round out of Auburn, the 22-year-old has found himself playing more safety in recent weeks — and playing well, according to Arians.
Still, Ford will be given an opportunity to be a return specialist. His experience, however, only includes kickoffs. He did not return punts in college.
Arians also mentioned John Brown, when healthy, and J.J. Nelson (only if “we need him”) as potential other options. Both Brown and Nelson have been back on kickoffs and punts in the past.
Last season, the Cardinals used four and three different players on kickoff and punt returns, respectively.
“Any time that you have an opportunity to help change the game for a positive, that’s always something that you want to do,” Kerwynn Williams said, “so if you got an opportunity to do that, you definitely take that very serious.”
The Cardinals’ return game has been a source of angst in recent years. Field position is always critical, and a better starting point can do wonders for an offense. It’s why the Cardinals believed they had found their answer in Logan.
“Somebody else is just going to have to step up and do it,” Arians said.
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