SANTA CLARA -- LaMichael James is getting more practice time catching punts, and he is spending time after practice, too.
Nobody on the 49ers coaching staff has told him he will be returning punts and kickoffs on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, but James is preparing as if he is going to be the guy.
“You just got to be ready to go,” James said Thursday. “When I get on the field, I have to take advantage of my opportunities. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Kyle Williams’ job as the 49ers’ primary return man appears to be in jeopardy after he fumbled a kickoff and muffed a punt in the 49ers’ 42-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 27.
Coach Jim Harbaugh said last week that he wanted to get James, a second-round draft pick in 2012, into the mix on offense and special teams. When asked this week whether Williams will still be the 49ers’ return man, Harbaugh said he is keeping all options open.
Said James, “I have been taking more reps, even after practice, just seeing the ball and trying to improve.”
James has never returned a punt in an NFL regular-season game. As a rookie, James muffed three punts and bobbled another during the exhibition season. But he said he has improved dramatically since that time.
“Oh, my,” James said. “At first, it was a little shaky, never really doing it that much in college. I did it one year and never really catching an NFL ball or studying an NFL punter, never really thinking about the wind, just free-styling it when I was in college.
“You got to study the ball and you got to play the wind. There’s a lot of things that come with it, and you have to grow and you have to learn. I feel like I’m well-conditioned for it now.”
Also, one advantage to fielding punts at Candlestick Park in November -- as opposed to August -- is that the wind is not as much of an obstacle. The wind is generally its strongest in the late-summer months.
“I noticed that last year,” James said. “Nobody told me the wind was going to be like that. I had no idea. I had a rude awakening.”