Special ability

The question was posed to Willie Ponder as if such success was only this easy. <BR><BR>

A friend wondered why Ponder, the Giants' new kickoff returner, couldn't simply duplicate Dante Hall's feats of 2003. After all, Hall only made national headlines last season when he recorded four return touchdowns during the regular season for Kansas City, and added another in the Chiefs' playoff game. Ponder, meanwhile, had yet to return a kickoff more than 33 yards in a regular season NFL game when this was asked of the second-year receiver.

"I said, ‘Dante Hall, he's a special player. He's a lot quicker than I am. He can stop and get back on the move at top speed in a quick second,'" Ponder said. "Dante Hall's a great returner. I watched tape on him during the preseason. I don't know if there will be another Dante Hall. Do you see the runs, how he did it? His quickness and his athletic ability is amazing."

Luckily for Ponder, the Giants don't necessarily need him to become their answer to Hall, a two-time Pro Bowler who averaged 25.9 yards-per-kick return in 2003.

After the horrible Brian Mitchell experiment, average yardage on returns would suffice. And Ponder's production in two games already is indicative of an upgrade over Mitchell, who accounted for just 20.3 yards-per-return on 55 attempts last season, none longer than 29 yards. Between Mitchell, one of the best return men in NFL history, and Delvin Joyce, the Giants averaged an abysmal 19.9 yards-per-kickoff return during Jim Fassel's final season.

The diminutive Joyce was waived/injured on Aug. 9, an unforeseen development that thrust Ponder into a role he hadn't played since high school. Though he accomplished enough as a receiver at tiny Southeast Missouri State to be drafted in the sixth round by the Giants 19 months ago, Ponder did not return kickoffs for the Division I-AA school. But with Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor around, Ponder's opportunities as a receiver will be limited, so he has embraced his prominent special teams role.

"I get more comfortable every kickoff," Ponder said. "I'm really looking forward to Sunday (against Cleveland), to having another chance at it."

Sundays especially excite Ponder because he has found that it is difficult to accurately assess his progress in practice.

"Yeah, I've broken through and gone through in practice or whatever, but that's not the real thing," Ponder said. "Everybody's running and everybody's picking up their blocks, but you cannot simulate kickoff returns in practice, or you won't have a team on Sunday."

The 6-0, 205-pound Ponder has, however, gained a lot from film study. In addition to watching tapes of Hall, Ponder has reviewed videos of Chicago's 2003 kickoff returns because Giants special teams coach Mike Sweatman was on the Bears' staff last season. On average, Chicago began drives after kickoffs at the 33.5 yard line, the best starting point in the league last season.

"It helps me out and shows me how they did it," Ponder said. "I mean, I don't know how much technique is involved in being a return man, but just seeing where they turn, where they hit it when someone breaks a return, at what point of the return or the scheme do they break it, that's important."

Ponder isn't alone in trying to halt the Giants' return troubles, though.

Their new punt returner, Bucs reject Mark Jones, has his hands full, too. As awful as Mitchell performed on kickoffs in his lone season as a Giant, the ex-Eagle and Redskin was worse on punt returns. Mitchell managed merely 5.3 yards-per-punt return and wasn't able to take one back any longer than 15 yards.

"Good field position is a big thing," Jones said. "We need to give the offense a chance to put points on the board, so they don't have to drive the whole length of the field. We want to try to give them as short a field as possible. It just comes down to catching the ball and guys getting blocks up front."

Jones is trying to keep pace with Ponder's development as a return film fanatic, but the task was made more difficult last week when free safety Omar Stoutmire was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Jones, who played receiver and safety during his senior season at Tennessee last fall, was signed as a receiver/kick returner on Sept. 6, a day after Tampa Bay released its seventh-round draft choice. Stoutmire's setback forced Jones to learn the defensive playbook, too, just in case anything happens to free safety Brent Alexander, strong safety Shaun Williams, Jack Brewer, former Tennessee teammate Gibril Wilson, a fifth-round draft choice who's now a more important reserve, or any of their cornerbacks.

"Coming in, I focused more on just returning, how a punter punts the ball," Jones said. "Then I would keep my ears open to what's going on at other positions, because I knew I could get put in that situation. But now it's kind of shifted gears, towards getting the basics of the defense. If my number's called, I need to go in there and tell the coach that I know what I'm doing." Jones joins Ponder in feeling like he knows what he's doing on returns. Now it's just a matter of getting a feel for their blockers.

"Coach (Sweatman) draws up a perfect scheme for it," Jones said, "and we just have to go out there and execute. That's pretty much what it comes down to."

Ponder senses that the chemistry's coming, maybe to the degree that the Giants can score their first return touchdown since 2000.

"I've done OK," Ponder said. "I feel like I can get better. I'm just running hard and doing what Coach (Sweatman) asks me to do.

"It's the small things that's going to make a big impact on returns. I'm not going to be effective if the guys in front of me are not effective. It's up to those guys. They're going to make me. But everything's looking good. It's just the small things that we're ironing out. Once we get it going, who knows?"


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