Williams getting returns in order

Arland Bruce got the short hook as the 49ers' punt returner, but that's because the team had Jimmy Williams around. Coach Dennis Erickson didn't think Williams was ready at the start of the season to handle return responsibilities along with an increased role in the secondary, but Williams has since shown everybody he is. Now Williams can try to pick up where he left off last year - as the NFL's top punt returner. "I think I can go out and do great things," Williams said. "I want to be great."

After Bruce proved to be shaky once the real games began, either bobbling or fumbling three punts in the season opener, the Niners went to Williams, who now can focus on returning to his form of 2002, when he led the NFL in returning punts with a 16.8 average before a knee injury ended his season in December.

"Everything feels good about being out there," Williams said. "I don't think about what I've done in the past. I just want to go out there and be productive. I'm just glad I have that opportunity again."

Williams tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee returning a kick Dec. 8 at Dallas. His rehabilitation continued deep into training camp this year and he played in just one preseason game.

That gave Bruce a chance to begin the season as San Francisco's kick returner. But Bruce did not take advantage of the opportunity and was waived Tuesday after returning just four punts (for a 6.0 average) and six kickoff returns (20.8). He did not show the game-breaking ability he'd displayed in the preseason. He also bobbled more kicks than he handled cleanly, losing one that a teammate recovered.

The Niners signed him back to the practice squad Thursday to give him more time to develop at this level.

The Niners have confidence in Williams now that they didn't quite have because of his knee when the season started. In fact, Erickson appeared dismayed late in the preseason when Williams - after being cleared by doctors and looking good in practice - was a late scratch for the New Orleans exhibition game because the player didn't feel he was ready.

But now the coach has been won over by Williams sure-handling of punts in the St. Louis dome and his fine play in the secondary.

"He's looking good," Erickson said. "He fields it really well. We just have to get him some place to go. That's the key."

Williams gave a glimpse of his explosiveness with a 16-yard return against the Rams. But that is one of the few highlights for San Francisco's return game so far in 2003. The Niners rank 26th in the league with a 5.8 average on punt returns.

Williams is just the guy to change that.

"Last week was just getting back there and getting a feel for guys coming down at you and fielding punts with the live bullets flowing," said Williams, whose 89-yard return for a touchdown last year was the fourth-longest in team history. "I'm getting comfortable with teammates and the new scheme of things."

Williams, the nickel back in several San Francisco secondary packages, won't be replacing Bruce on kickoff returns Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Erickson said Cedrick Wilson, the team's No. 3 wide receiver, will return kickoffs Sunday with rookie receiver Brandon Lloyd as his backup.

"We just decided we'd rather have Cedrick back there," Erickson said. "Jimmy is in nickel. Jimmy last year wasn't playing much. Now he's playing quite a bit."

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