Cardinals hope Kerwynn Williams ends search for return man

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are three traits that Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians thinks every punt returner needs to have.

Good hands. The ability to stretch the field. Fearlessness.

It looks like Kerwynn Williams can check all three.

Once rookie T.J. Logan went down with a fractured wrist during the Hall of Fame game two weeks ago, the Cardinals were on the hunt for a new return man for kickoffs and punts. They had two options. Find someone for each or find someone to do both.

"So many guys can't do it because they can't catch (punts)," Arians said. "And you have to be fearless. If you can just make one guy miss, that's the key. Just make one guy miss, you're going to make yards so if you can stretch the field, make one guy miss and you have those three things, it's pretty much all there is to it."

Arians knew if he gave Williams a chance, the fifth-year player would come through -- just like Arians has seen before.

"Kerwynn's one of those guys that if you just give him his opportunity, he does great with it every time," Arians said. "And you're kind of stupid if you don't give him one. I'm sure he'll do a great job with the punt return, kick return job right now.

"He's extremely competitive but he's extremely reliable, too."

That could allow Williams to bring some consistency to the Cardinals' return game. They've had 10 kick returners and six punt returners since Arians was hired in 2013. He thought the battle for the job was over in 2014, when the Cards drafted J.J. Nelson but he was injured in the second game of the season after muffing a punt against Chicago, all but ending his tenure as Arizona's punt returner.

The carousel of returners has been frustrating, Arians said. It's included running back David Johnson, who won't be allowed to return another kick for as long as he lives; safety Tyrann Mathieu, who had his knee torn up the last time he returned a kick; cornerback Patrick Peterson, who's ultimately too valuable to the franchise to be put out there as a sitting duck but is still in Arians' back pocket as an option; and wide receiver John Brown, who wants to do it and was finding some success with 17 punt returns for 119 yards last season before health issues curtailed his performance.

Finding a kick returner this time around was going to be the easier of the two. Kicks have a tendency to be more routine. They tend to come straight at the returner and take longer to get there. Fielding punts, on the other hand, is a hidden talent.

"It's just a rare, rare knack to return punts," Arians said.

There are more factors involved.

"Really, the timing," Williams said. "You have more time to catch a kick because there's no one inside your face. You're catching a kick moving forward whereas a punt, you got to be stationary. You got to make sure you have a good feel for how long the ball's in the air because that determines whether you get blown up by somebody.

"I feel like with punts, the biggest difference is you have to trust your teammates more on punts. You got to trust they're going to keep the guys out of your face and you get a secure catch."

Or as Nelson put it, a punt returner needs to pray.

"You're praying that this guy on the outside got his block as well as you have eight or nine more guys in the box, praying that they got their block," Nelson said. "With you looking up, hoping you catch the ball and hoping that the defender don't run into you while you catch the ball. There's a lot that goes into it.

"I feel like it's one of the toughest jobs out there."

And it's Williams’ for now.

He's not a complete novice at returning punts. He's fielded punts before, during practice. He's also spent time during offseasons working on his punt and kick returns to make sure his timing is right.

But there are aspects of returning punts that Williams won't be able to prepare for.

It's more of a judgment play than anything else, Nelson said. The wind could be a factor. There are various kicks -- Aussie-style, spiral, end-over-end -- and various ways to angle a punt. A punter might place it outside the hash marks or outside the numbers or on the sideline or over Williams' head. Punts can come from different depths, whereas a kickoff is usually launched from the 25-yard-line.

However, Williams feels "pretty comfortable" doing it. In his debut as the Cardinals primary returner in Saturday's preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, Williams returned a punt for 13 yards and a kickoff for 35. If he can average those types of numbers during the regular season, Arians feels Williams could lead the NFL next season.

"I thought he was very decisive, took it north," Arians said. "Just continue doing what he's doing."