NFL's best kickoff returner, contribute at WR?

Willie Ponder didn't need to be told an infusion of draft picks and free agents threatened his spot as a receiver with the Giants this summer.

Willie Ponder didn't need to be told an infusion of draft picks and free agents threatened his spot as a receiver with the Giants this summer.

In his second season, Ponder, a sixth-round pick from Southeast Missouri State, did not have a superlative rookie season. He played in only four games with no starts and made just seven catches for 35 yards, two in the season's last game against the Panthers.

When he arrived in Albany for Tom Coughlin's first camp, evidence of a positional re-evaluation was all around him. Holdover David Tyree, draft pick Jamaar Taylor and free agents JaJuan Dawson, James McKnight, Ataveus Cash and Chris Davis crowded the field for the two spots behind Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Tim Carter.

So Ponder decided to take the initiative in an effort to make himself more valuable to his new coach. He volunteered to run back kicks. Now there's no one better at it in the NFL. Ponder was averaging 28 yards on 29 returns before Sunday's game in Cincinnati.

"I've always liked it, but I just never had a chance," Ponder said. "I wanted to do it this year so I asked to do it. I feel like I can break one every time I go back there. It's about timing and matching up with your man. If I can get past the front line, I think I can make it all the way. It's the heart of a competitor and I'm always going to compete."

Ponder bounced around before finding a home at Southeast Missouri, where he was a two-year starter who made 157 catches for 26 touchdowns. He also returned punts and kickoffs and the Giants were excited about his potential on special teams when he joined them.

Ponder did not return a punt or kickoff for Jim Fassel in 2003, but quickly raised his hand when the Giants were looking to replenish the position. He came into the Steelers game Dec. 18 fourth in the league with a 26.3 average, with a long return of 38 against the Bears Nov. 7.

Those numbers would grow significantly before the end of the day.

Ponder and Derrick Ward, a rookie halfback, have returned kickoffs for touchdowns since the start of December. Ward had a 92-yard return against the Redskins Dec. 3. Ponder carried the opening kickoff back for a 91-yard touchdown against the Steelers. It's the first time in team history that two kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns in the regular season.

"It was a big play for momentum," Ponder said. "The front line did a good job opening the way for me. I just caught the ball, tried to focus on keeping possession and took it to the house. Just 11 guys working together, just like it was when Derrick Ward took it to the house a couple weeks ago [in Washington on Dec. 3] when I was injured."

The Giants hoped Ponder's play would set the stage for an upset of the Steelers, the top-seeded team in the AFC. But it didn't provide enough juice to fizzle the Steelers offense, which produced a season-high 469 yards against the Giants defense and beat them, 33-30.

"The touchdown really electrified the crowd," Tiki Barber said. "It electrifies the team. You get inspired by great plays like that and Willie had a phenomenal game."

Ponder's 259 kickoff return yards in the loss to Pittsburgh were the most by a player in a game this season. The yardage was also a Giants' individual single-game record. It was the Giants' highest team total since they had 274 kickoff return yards on Nov. 27, 1966, when they lost in Washington, 72-41, the highest-scoring game in NFL history.

The Giants certainly thought they were headed in the right direction against the Steelers when Ponder broke two tackles down the right sideline to give them the early lead.

"I just got caught up in the excitement of the moment," Ponder said. "This is a team that is trying hard to win. We're doing whatever we can to get one. We need to make it a fun game by having fun. We were fighting hard and we just ran out of time. What you need to do is play with your heart. And if you play with your heart eventually it's going to show in us being one of the best teams in the NFC. Right now, things just aren't going our way."

High on the list of objectives set forth by Coughlin was improvement on kick returns, last in the NFL in 2003 despite the signing of Brian Mitchell, the greatest return man in league history.

With Mitchell and Delvin Joyce handling the job, the Giants averaged only 19.9 yards on 75 returns, none longer than 36. Mitchell's longest was for only 29. So it was no surprise that Mitchell and Joyce weren't with the team when this season started.

When this dysfunctional rebuilding season ends next week, Coughlin will have much to complain about. But the proficiency of his kick returners will not be one of them.

"We're No. 1 in the league for good reason," Coughlin said. "It's been very encouraging. The unit has grown and developed. It's comprehended our schemes and made the adjustments we ask of from week to week to try to better attack the opponent. It's becoming a physical unit and one that believes it can score every time it's on the field. And that's what you're looking for."

Ron Dixon opened the playoff game against the Eagles in 2000 at Giants Stadium by scoring on the opening kickoff then added another in Super Bowl XXXV. But Ponder's return was the first time the Giants had ever scored on the opening kickoff at home during a regular-season game. No Giant since Clarence Childs in Cleveland in 1966 had taken the opening kick back at any time during the regular season.

Now, the next natural step for Ponder is to make an impact as a receiver. He had only one catch this season, for 3 yards against the Vikings Oct. 31, before Sunday's game at Cincinnati.

"Coming from a small school, you need to have determination," Ponder said. "There are a lot of people depending on you. You need to stay focused, keep praying and who knows what can happen? It's a tough game. Every week people put their lives on the line. All I'm about right now is going with the flow each day and trying my best to be a professional in my work. I love this game very much. I'm a receiver, but we have Ike and Amani and I'm learning from those guys."


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