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PLEASE NOTE: The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on BaltimoreRavens.com represent those of individual authors, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the Baltimore Ravens’ organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. Authors’ views are formulated independently from any inside knowledge and/or conversations with Ravens officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.
Tom Zbikowski was in college (2007) the last time he returned a punt. And Mark Clayton and Donte’ Stallworth’s last punt return both came in 2005.
But all three have been in the mix to be the Ravens’ punt returner in training camp.
And as the Ravens head into their preseason opener Thursday against the Carolina Panthers, all three could get a shot. At this point, the Ravens haven’t let any of them know how much work they’ll get.
“If you find out, let me know. I’m not sure,” said Zbikowski, who is expected to start at safety. ”I’ll go back, just catching punts all the time just to see what will happen. And once again, whenever they need me, if I’m playing safety and I’m getting a little tired, you know what I mean [I'll] get a break, but if I’m fresh, hopefully I’ll be doing them.”
Zbikowski excelled at both punt and kickoff returns while at Notre Dame.
He returned three punts for touchdowns, including two for 78 and 52 yards, and boasted another 60-yard return that did not reach the end zone.
Zbikowski, who returned kickoffs for the Ravens in the 2008 playoffs, said he’s been working on regaining that skill.
“I think a lot of it is just getting the feeling back of catching those punts,” Zbikowski said. ”When you do it in college and [have] never done it in the NFL, it’s a whole other set of legs, a whole other bag of tricks that they can do. Just seeing what Sam [Koch] can do, how many different variations of punts he has, you’ve always got to be practicing and stuff, always be catching balls.”
For Clayton, it was his rookie season since he’s fielded a punt.
Now, as a player working as the Ravens’ fourth receiver, he is looking forward to the chance to contribute in other ways. Clayton said he didn’t hesitate when Head Coach John Harbaugh mentioned a return to the punt team.
“Coach asked if I wanted to, and I was like, ‘Sure, I’m available,’” Clayton explained. ”If they want me back there all the time, that’s cool. If not, that won’t be the case. We’ll just have to see how this thing shakes out. I’m sure Donte’ can get it done. I’m sure Zibby can get it done, too.”
As for Stallworth, the speedy receiver has looked like a natural in the punt game, as well.
One thing that is certain, Chris Carr, who owned punt return duties in 2009, won’t be taking kicks on Thursday because he is dealing with an undisclosed injury. Carr could get back in the mix once he’s healthy, but he hasn’t returned one punt all training camp.
The battle could be fluid even through the regular season.