Eagles Looking For A Punt Returner

Will Mardy Gilyard make the team as a punt returner? (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)

BETHLEHEM -- The Eagles are hoping to phase DeSean Jackson out of the punt return business. While they aren’t ready to say he won’t be returning any punts this season, they are hoping to find somebody that can handle most – if not all – of the punt return duties.

"DeSean will return some, but we’ll primarily focus him on offense, and hopefully find a guy that can do what he can do," special teams coach Bobby April said Tuesday morning.

"We want to use (Jackson) offensively as a weapon. There’s some wear and tear on a guy his size. (The risk of) injury. Just the amount of running he does. Most of his routes, he’s not running the three-step hitch. He’s stretching the field. We’ve got a lot invested in keeping his legs replenished."

Jackson handled 29 punts last season, returning 17 and fair-catching another 12. He averaged a career-low 6.7 yards per return. The Eagles finished 28th in the league in punt returns.

Three potential punt return candidates right now: rookies Cliff Harris, Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson. Two others who also will get opportunities in training camp: Mardy Gilyard and Ron Johnson.

There’s a good chance Boykin, the team’s fourth-round pick, will unseat Deon Lewis as the team’s kickoff returner. He set school records at Georgia in kickoff return yards (2,663) and touchdowns (4). He averaged 24.2 yards per return for the Bulldogs.

But he doesn’t have as much experience at returning punts.

"He did do some," said April. "But he wasn’t the primary guy. He doesn’t have as much background returning punts as he does returning kicks. So, the confidence level he shows, how he charts out catching punts in practice, is going to be a big factor. Because you’ve got to secure that ball. You’ve got to catch it and secure it. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter (how good you are)."

The player that April is anxious to see return punts is Harris, the undrafted free agent cornerback out of Oregon. Two years ago, he returned four punts for touchdowns for the Ducks and averaged 18.8 yards per return. He was thrown off the team last year after being cited for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. A few months before that, he was cited for driving 118 miles an hour with a suspended license.

"He’s a phenomenal punt returner," April said. "He’s very much like DeSean, he really is. He reminds me of DeSean when I watched DeSean at Cal. Really, really explosive. Once they get going, they can pull away. We really want to see him in the preseason. We’re going to give him a chance to make the team. And make it as a punt returner."