Sutherland returns to return for Niners

Vinny Sutherland was sitting at home in Florida on New Year's Eve watching his alma mater play in the Sun Bowl. Then the phone rang. It was his former employer, the 49ers, asking him to fly to California to audition for his old job as their kickoff returner. "I didn't even watch the end of the Purdue game," Sutherland said. "I got here New Year's Eve." And, after a successful tryout Wednesday, Sutherland was signed by the team Thursday and will play in Sunday's playoff game against the Giants.

Sutherland will go from football couch potato to NFL playoff contributor because the Niners are seriously thin at kick returner after Cedrick Wilson and Jason Webster both suffered sprained ankles in Monday's season-ending loss at St. Louis. Webster's status continues to look iffy and, while Wilson should be ready to handle the punt return duties against New York, the Niners plan on handing the kickoff return duties to Sutherland, who handled that role with the team last year.

"Cedrick Wilson needs another person to help him out in the return game," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said Thursday. "You don't go into a game with just one guy. We have to decide how to use (Sutherland) in this game. He'll probably be the kickoff returner and will probably back up Cedrick as a punt returner and then he will play some other spots in the cover unit like he did for us last year."

Sutherland set a franchise rookie record with 1,121 yards on kickoff returns last year as a rookie, when he ranked 11th in the NFC with a 22.8 average.

But he lost his job as the primary return man to Jimmy Williams in training camp, and he was cut last Aug. 27 - three months after Sutherland was arrested when he drove his car into two light posts in Saratoga. He pleaded no contest to hit-and-run and drunken driving charges on Oct. 7, and he spent time in a substance-abuse treatment clinic

He later was picked up by the Chicago Bears, where he spent three weeks, returning three kickoffs for 49 yards in a game against Detroit before being released. He spent his NFL hiatus working out and dropping 10 pounds while keeping up with the 49ers by reading his subscription to SFI and watching the team's games on television.

"Vinny is in good shape," Niners special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said. "It looks like he's lost some weight and, if anything, is maybe a little bit quicker at catching punts, and now that he's done that, he looks the same. If anything, he looks a little quicker, a little faster. He looked OK in practice today. It's good that he knows what we're doing, what we expect out of him and the things we've done in the kicking game. From that standpoint, it's a lot better than bringing in someone who's never been here. He knows our calls and knows what we're trying to get done and what we want him to do and not do out there on the field. It's kind of like having a guy that we trained."

Said Sutherland, "It's just a great opportunity, but it's not like I haven't been out there before. I'm definitely excited. If you can't get up for something like this, you definitely don't belong playing."


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