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Patriots looking for happier returns in 2012

06.13.12 at 4:46 pm ET
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Julian Edelman has been part of a varied group of returners throughout the spring sessions. (AP)

FOXBORO — It’s not exactly “Community Auditions,” but the Patriots are giving a lot of guys an opportunity to win the job of both kick returner and punt returner throughout the spring practice sessions.

A wide variety of players have rotated in as returners throughout the OTA’s and minicamp practices, including Danny Woodhead (who handled 20 of the 46 kick returns for New England during the regular season) and Julian Edelman (who returned 28 of the 38 punts last season for the Patriots). Wide receivers Donte Stallworth and Deion Branch, safety Pat Chung, running back Stevan Ridley and defensive back Devin McCourty have also been worked into the mix.

Special teams coach Scott O’Brien said Wednesday the current rotation isn’t necessarily an indictment of the group who worked as returners last year, but because “you can never have enough” depth at that position.

“I don’t know if we’re trying out different guys. We’re getting other guys involved,’ O’Brien said. “We keep working in Danny, who I thought got better as the year went on last year, for his first time doing it. So it was good there. Along with Julian, based on how our team unfolds here, we’re going to work in everyone we can.

“Donte is just like Devin,” O’Brien said. “We got [McCourty] exposed to it — we got him experience doing it. So he does it also too, because you can never have enough. You can never have enough. It’s been good so far for those guys.”

Chung, who did some work as a returner in college, hasn’t worked as a returner since his rookie season.

“I did it my rookie year. My rookie year I did a little returning, but if they put you there, you have to be able to do it,” said Chung, who has worked as a kick and punt returner throughout the spring. “It’s fun. It’s always fun having the ball in your hands. It’s definitely fun.

“I like both — punt return is a little harder, just because of the ball, the wind and everything. But it’s all the same. You just have to catch it. Catch and run.”

“When we had [Chung] as a rookie, we had him catching punts, and actually did a pretty good job for us there,” O’Brien said of Chung. “I think it was the Washington game in preseason I think where he had one at the end of the game and he had a nice return that gave us the opportunity to win the game at the end of the game. He’s had some issues and that kind of stuff, but we’ve never forgotten about Patrick.”

It wasn’t a great season for New England’s return game. The Patriots were in the middle to lower half of the league in almost every major return category, including average yards per kick return (21.4, 29th overall), total kick return yards (986, 19th overall) and average yards per punt return (10.2, 16th overall).

O’Brien said it’s “no question” that return work is an area where the Patriots remain “concerned about” heading into 2012.

“We know what our standards are, and we didn’t reach them last year,” he said. “We know why and we have to keep working at it.”

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