August 22 2002
By Bryan Hersh of 49ers Paradise
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Clearly not satisfied with their kick returning options, the 49ers turned to the Arena League on Wednesday to help answer their questions at the position. The 49ers signed two Arena League cornerbacks with experience at returning kicks. To make room for the additions the 49ers released WR Nate Jackson who has been bothered by perpetual shoulder problems (he may be back with the 49ers next year after he has surgery) and CB Fred Booker who saw little action in pre-season with the team.
The 49ers have been looking for a punt and kick returner to challenge Vinny Sutherland. The team has given Jimmy Williams and Cedrick Wilson a chance at both positions, and Williams appears to be the better of the two. Neither seems to be significantly better than Sutherland. The team has also tried Jamal Robertson as a kick returner, but he’s seen very few opportunities at the position despite being somewhat impressive.
In signing both Clevan Thomas and Antoine “TT” Toliver from the Arena League the 49ers may be able to find that ‘solid’ returner they have been looking for. Both will have the challenge of stepping in immediately and trying to make an impact at the position.
Thomas the 2002 defensive players of the year in the Arena League. A versatile players player, he had five interceptions and finished fourth in the league in kick returns (22.2 yard average) and was third at defending the pass (with 23 passes defended). He returned five kicks for touchdowns
Toliver was with Rams for part of the 2001 season. He’s an explosive players that averaged 29.2 yards on returns with two touchdown returns. He also had two interceptions.
The arena league field is much smaller, making returning kicks a different game altogether. Still the smaller field forces quicker decision making. The lesser talent level however could have help inflate both of these players statistics. Still we’ve seen players make the jump before, and the 49ers would love to find a reliable and explosive kick returner this summer.