Key Bengals camp question: Mario Alford -- contender or pretender?

Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons on Mario Alford, who is competing to be the team's punt returner: "He needs to step up, or we've got to go someplace else." AP Photo/John Minchillo

CINCINNATI -- When the Cincinnati Bengals open training camp Friday afternoon, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons will be paying strict attention to his punt returners.

Of course, he's seen enough of Adam Jones (six seasons in Cincinnati) and Brandon Tate (five seasons), the Bengals' veteran punt-returning stalwarts, to know what they can do.

But the same can't be said about Mario Alford, the speedster entering what could be considered a make-or-break second season.

"We need to see if Mario Alford is a legitimate contender or if he's a pretender for that spot," Simmons said. "He's one that this camp is going to be huge for him. He needs to step up, or we've got to go someplace else.

"It's time for him."

Alford understands the urgency of this preseason. He's aware that every opportunity he gets to return punts, he has to cleanly track the ball into his hands and then run like the wind.

When you've got sub-4.3 40-yard speed, you must show it.

"For me, it's just taking it to the house every play," Alford said. "Getting yards, a huge amount of yards, and giving my team great field advantage. So that's going to be my main thing. You're just back there working on making that first man miss, and then going up north and south."

That's practically the same pep talk Jones has been giving Alford since the young player started learning the position last year. In college at West Virginia (the same school Jones attended a decade prior), Alford seldom returned punts. But he was electrifying on kickoffs. One of his top college highlights was a kick return touchdown against Alabama in the Georgia Dome, a stadium a little more than a hour north of his hometown.

"Just catch the ball and run. Don't think about it," Jones said of his advice. "He's fast as hell. All he has to do is catch the ball and run.

"He's got all the tools, man. But it's all up here [pointing to his head]. It's a mental thing that you have to have, that you can't teach. Some of these kids, it don't click soon enough. But it's time to go -- now. This ain't college."

Active for only one game last regular season, Alford had limited special teams opportunities as a rookie. He caught a pass in that lone game, but it was his only statistical contribution. He had more opportunities last preseason, though, returning five punts for 59 and while fair-catching another. His longest return was 19 yards.

"It was a mixed bag in the preseason, honestly, a year ago," Simmons said. "He made one play against Tampa on a punt-return play. There were other plays I wish he would have done things better. He's got to show he can handle those things. When he gets an opportunity to make plays he has to make a play. ... I've got to envision in the back of my mind: can he be the guy to line up against the Jets [in the season opener]? Can he handle it all, or will it be too much?"

Alford believes he'll be able to handle it, along with an expanded preseason role.

"This camp right here, I'm in a different mindset," Alford said. "I want to show them why did they draft me? What kind of guy I am. Show them that I'm fast on every play, and just prove ... them wrong. This is my second year, and they're expecting me to come in and blow up right away, so that's what I've got to do."