Kerwynn Williams claims kickoff, punt return duties for Cardinals
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals drafted T.J. Logan out of North Carolina in the fifth round of this year’s draft with the express purpose of having him return kicks and punts.
All was going well until Logan dislocated his wrist late in the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys. At the earliest, Logan could be back halfway through the season.
So the job was open and it didn’t take Kerwynn Williams long to claim it, not only returning kickoffs — something at which he has experience — but punts, too. He said he hadn’t returned a punt since a preseason game for Indianapolis as a rookie in 2013.
“I learn to like any opportunity I get, honestly,” Williams said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s blocking that wing or doing whatever. Any opportunity I always enjoy.”
Returning punts is no job for the timid. The receiver stands there, relatively helpless, waiting for the football to come down while big, fast players bear down on him. Many a kickoff returner has chosen not to return punts.
“I would definitely say you have to be brave to catch punts out here, especially at the level of play that we play now,” Williams said. “It’s really not like college, where guys play special teams because the coach needs them to or just because of numbers-wise. Guys now, that’s their main job. They study tape. They study you just like they studied offense or defense. So you have to be brave because these guys are out there trying to keep their jobs.”
Coach Bruce Arians was pleasantly surprised to see how well Williams returns punts.
“Whoever comes out of nowhere as a punt returner is always a surprise,” Arians said. “A guy who hasn’t done it in a while, the ability to catch left-footed punters and right-footed punters and gain yards is rare.”
Williams does prefer returning kickoffs, though.
“It is a totally different thing,” he said. “You have more time on kick returns. You can have a little more patience to kind of let things develop on kickoff returns. They have to block for a long time so you kind of have to let the play develop, whereas on punt returns a lot of times the guy will be right in your face when you’re catching the ball or they’re humming down the field so it’s a bit quick on your decision making.”
Williams has weathered an uphill fight to make it in the NFL.
A seventh-round draft pick by Indianapolis out of Utah State in 2013, Williams was released by the Colts and joined the San Diego practice squad that October. The following season, he spent two stints on the Cardinals practice squad and was elevated to the active roster long enough to appear in five games.
And he began to draw Arians’ attention.
“I didn’t know him until we got our hands on him,” Arians said. “Then all of a sudden we couldn’t touch him in practice. … When he got his opportunity he was an outstanding player. They come in all sizes. He was one of those strong, small guys that are hard to tackle.”
Williams is 5-foot-8 and a solid 198 pounds. He has averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns in 21 games with Arizona over the past three seasons.
He brings a running back’s style to the return game.
“It’s just different body types,” Williams said. “Receivers are usually taller guys with a bigger surface area. They’re usually a little more shifty. It’s a different style, running back. You’re used to running downhill and stuff like that so you might just make one cut. It’s almost like running an outside zone play. You stretch and puncture.”
Not only has he locked down the return job, he’s pushing Chris Johnson for playing time behind David Johnson at running back.
“I love Kerwynn,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “… He’s explosive, he’s hard to find behind the line of scrimmage because he is small. He’s got a very quick burst and breakaway speed and he can catch the ball. I love everything about him and love seeing a guy that’s not a first-, second-round pick make a team through the special team and work his way up.”
Notes: Two Arizona players, LG Mike Iupati (triceps) and DL Robert Nkemdiche (calf) won’t play Saturday at Atlanta.