SANTA CLARA LaMichael James became a more confident punt returner this offseason by making sure he could master a high degree of difficulty.
The first thing any good return man must do when fielding punts, James said Sunday, is watch the ball come off the punter's foot. So James practiced with that critical element blocked from his view.
Special-teams coach Brad Seely, a broad-shouldered, Iowa-born guy who is well over 6 feet tall, would stand directly in front of James when the punt went into the air. By the time he got around Seely, the 5-8 James he's the second-shortest player on the roster said he'd typically locate the ball when it was at its apex or on its way down.
"That was really hard for me to do," James said of the routine. "But I feel it made me better."
James will get the first shot at punt returns during Thursday's preseason opener against the visiting Denver Broncos.
For the past three seasons, that job belonged to Ted Ginn, who signed a free-agent deal with Carolina in the offseason. Kyle Williams was Ginn's backup last year while James was a distant third in the pecking order, primarily because of two shaky outings at Candlestick Park when he was a rookie last preseason.
He flubbed a punt out of bounds in the first of two home games. In the preseason finale against San Diego, the swirling Candlestick winds caused him to muff two punts and bobble a fair catch.
James' confidence was shot, and the 49ers' trust in him dimmed, too. He didn't return a punt all season.
"I struggled with it and that's a fact," he said. "But I never held my head low and said, 'I'm going to quit doing it.' It's something that I wanted to go and get better at."
That led to a relentless offseason routine with Seely and assistant special teams coach Tracy Smith.
"There's been a lot of time on the JUGS (machine), a lot of time catching balls from punters," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "There was a time there when him and coach Seely and Tracy Smith were doing 20 to 30 minutes of JUGS after practice. And that's where I see the improvement."
The one thing James hasn't done is practice at Candlestick.
There is constant wind in Santa Clara, but it's usually going in one direction, from north to south. It tends to switch directions at Candlestick, which is a few hundred yards from the San Francisco Bay, and furthermore it can be going in different directions at various altitudes inside the oddly shaped stadium.
Still, James said his confidence is stronger than it's ever been. After all, what can be more difficult than being screened by your coach and not seeing the first half of a punt's trajectory?
"If you can do that drill, you can catch it, because you're not actually seeing the punt come off the foot," James said. "As a punt returner, it's important to see the ball coming off the foot. When he's holding you that long, you have to find the ball in the air and adjust to it."