ANDERSON – The gist of the Indianapolis Colts' philosophy on kickoff returns and punt returns seems simple enough: Don't botch things up before Peyton Manning takes the field.
Big, thrilling, back-breaking returns haven't been a Colts staple since, oh, they moved to Indianapolis.
So what do we make of Brandon James, then? Can the little guy (5-foot-7, 176 pounds) from the University of Florida be that breakaway return threat that the Colts have rarely possessed? The fans love him. They cheered wildly when he rose high and caught a pass Monday morning during practice at Anderson University. By all accounts, James has returned to form after an early-camp spell of the drops.
“I feel like you have to have a lot of confidence back there,” James said. “The ball's so high in the air and guys are coming down trying to kill you. You've got to have confidence, then speed and quickness to kind of set up blocks and hit the seams and try to take it the distance. That's what I try to bring every time out there.”
James, holder of four Southeastern Conference and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns, is one of a handful of young players competing for a shot at the Colts' luxury position.
Devin Moore, a second-year player who spent last season on the Seahawks and Panthers' practice squads, has gotten some good looks at kick return. Erstwhile Colts practice squad receiver Sam Giguere is another candidate, along with rookies Ray Fisher (from Indiana University) and Javarris James, the Miami back best known as Edgerrin James' cousin. At times, the Colts have even had fourth-year receiver Anthony Gonzalez working on returns.
Kick returner is not a priority along the lines of offensive line or defensive secondary. However, the Colts' offense could be even better if there was some consistency to the field position generated by the return game.
The last Colts returner with any sort of success was Terrence Wilkins, who ranked 16th in kickoff returns and 24th in punt returns in 2006.
This Sunday's preseason game against the 49ers could be a telling one for Brandon James and his competitors.
“In terms of the return game, the big thing is we evaluate them on whether they have the hands to catch it consistently,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “Then, once they catch it and secure it, can they do something with it?”
Brandon James' track record shows he can bust some moves on the return game. While he's unproven in the NFL, he thrived in the SEC, which is as good as it gets in college football.
James returned four punts and one kickoff for touchdowns at Florida, averaging 24.3 yards per kickoff return and 11.7 yards per punt return over his career.
“Me being a small guy, my game is based on speed, making moves and big-play ability,” James said. “So I just try to live by that. …I've been blessed with the ability to make people miss.”
If James turns out to be the type of return man the Colts would like to devote some special teams' time developing, the question is whether there will be roster space to make it happen. Carrying a kick returner who does nothing else has to be considered a luxury.
James has running back skills, but won't be passing Joseph Addai, Donald Brown and Mike Hart on the charts. He's been working as a receiver, but that group is even more stacked with talent.
His big play in camp Monday morning was a good sign that the skills of Reggie Wayne and friends are rubbing off.
“It's a little bit of a challenge, me coming from being a slot guy with a little bit of running back role,” James said. “It's been a little difficult, but I'm learning from guys like Pierre (Garcon), Reggie and Austin (Collie), and working with Peyton. It's challenging, but you have to come out each day and get better.”
James seems to be past the jitters. He's fielding punts well. Even in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts, he has some obvious quickness and moves.
If he can win the job, and get the ball to Manning in good field position, he could end up a small, but invaluable, new weapon.