Redskins’ kick-return battle is wide open entering preseason opener

Niles Paul

Niles Paul was pressed into duty as a returner late last season, but competition is crowded at training camp. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Niles Paul isn’t kidding himself or anybody else. Though the third-year pro happily stepped in as the Washington Redskins‘ kick returner late last season when Brandon Banks struggled, Paul knows it was more his special teams experience than swiftness of foot that garnered him the role.

“We’ve got a lot of speed back there — a lot of guys that are faster than me and I’m not afraid to admit that,” Paul said Friday when asked about the preseason battle for the kick return spot.

With Banks gone and Keith Burns now at the helm as special teams coordinator after longtime coach Danny Smith departed for Pittsburgh, the competition for the position of kick returner is wide open.

What Paul lacks in speed, he can make up for with his résumé. After replacing Banks with five games left in the regular season, Paul averaged 24.9 yards per return, using the same power and toughness that once helped him run back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at Nebraska.

But the 6-foot-1, 233-pound Paul will be pushed by a handful of quicker candidates who also found success at the college and/or pro levels. Along with incumbent punt returner Richard Crawford, wide receivers Skye Dawson, Josh Morgan, Chip Reeves, Aldrick Robinson and Nick Williams, running backs Roy Helu, Evan Royster and Chris Thompson and cornerback Josh Wilson all fielded kicks at some point during last week’s training camp sessions.

Dawson has wowed some observers with his speed and explosive ability, not only on kick returns but at slot receiver. At 5 feet 9, Dawson is the smallest of the candidates, but the Texas Christian graduate earned All-Big 12 honorable mention as a returner last season, averaging 23.1 yards per kick return.

“I don’t think they’re putting me back there for no reason,” Dawson said. “I think them giving me the chance to go back there obviously means the spot is there to take. I just have to go out there and go get it.”

While the hunger and potential may be there, doing so will be tough for Dawson and fellow undrafted rookies Reeves and Williams. With the position battle for return man crowded and 12 wide receivers on the roster, getting enough reps in practice to showcase their skills is tough. That’s why Reeves, who made his mark at Troy on deep pass plays, is looking forward to Thursday’s preseason opener at Tennessee.

“With me being a free agent, I get the reps that free agents get; I’ve just got to make the most of my opportunity,” Reeves said. “I’m getting a fair look. It’s going to be up to me to do something in the preseason games. They use me outside on the edge a lot for special teams because I’m always the first one down the field. Hopefully they’ll put me in things other than just the deep ball but if not, I’m still happy and I’ll make something happen when I get out there.”

Williams arguably compiled the most success among the group as a kick returner in college during four years at Connecticut. After averaging a NCAA-best 35.3 yards per return as a sophomore in 2010, Williams used solid vision and quickness to set the school record for career kick return yards with 2,045. Still, the first week and a half of training camp has brought its share of lessons.

“It’s not really as much as a free-for-all as it was in college; there’s a whole bunch of details to it,” Williams said. “You have to be much more disciplined with the track that you take when you catch the ball, the decision to fair catch it or not, and just focusing on the details more to make them more muscle memory.”

With no preseason games under their belt, Burns said it’s too early to label favorites in the race to serve as kick returner within the Redskins’ unit. But with a plethora of candidates at his disposal, Burns expects to have enough of a body of work to consider when it comes time to make final cuts.”

“I will never put one guy in front of the other until we get to the final 53-man roster, so everybody is going to have an opportunity to show what they have,” Burns said. “It’s an open competition but at the same time, somebody could step up and take ownership of the job if they want it that bad. If not, we’ll have to go out and find somebody who can.”

Post photos from training camp:

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @D3Keith @Insider | @PostSports

What’s ahead:

● Today’s practices are at 10 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. If you’re headed to Richmond, check our our guide to training camp for tips on getting autographs, where to park and things to do after the session is over.

More from The Post:

Keith Burns takes the reins of Redskins’ special teams

Reid: Morris is lined up for an encore in Year 2

Cousins finds the silver linings in his situation

Training camp positives and negatives so far

Redskins eager for preseason opener

Trent Williams says “there’s no reason to worry” about his wrist injury

Observations from Saturday’s practices | Previous days’ observations

D.C. Sports Bog: How Chris Cooley got cut | More Bog & Redskins

Former Baltimore Colt Art Donovan dies at 89

Also on The Insider

Redskins training camp: Positives and negatives so far