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Garrett: Kick, Punt Return Competition Still "Wide Open"

SAN DIEGO – Dwayne Harris left the Cowboys in March and his job – actually, "jobs," plural – got posted immediately.

The Cowboys still need a kickoff and punt returner. Interviews within the 90-man roster continue in Oxnard, and in San Diego in Thursday night's preseason opener.

"They're wide open," head coach Jason Garrett said.

When Harris signed a five-year, $17.5 million deal with the Giants, he left behind an assortment of roles: backup receiver, special teams coverage guy, and kickoff/punt returner. He held both return duties full time the last two seasons, averaging 27.5 yards on kickoff returns and 10.6 yards on punt returns with one touchdown.

Both jobs could be filled by one player or a combination of players.

"We're looking for guys who can step in. I don't know if you have a preference," Garrett said. "I think you want your best punt return guy, you want your best kickoff return guy. Hopefully those guys are on your roster that you don't have to have a specialty guy in each of those spots.

"I think based on where we are right now, we're optimistic that there's good competition that we can find somebody that we like."

Fourth-year receiver Cole Beasley is the most established option. He has only fielded 10 punts in his career, but the same traits that make him a unique threat as a slot receiver – hands and quickness – make him an attractive choice on special teams.

Beasley's role on offense could continue to expand, but he's "all for" punt returns as another way to get yardage. Garrett also reiterated Monday that Beasley could handle offensive and special teams duties if asked.

"No matter what he does, he's going to do it well," assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia said. "And fast, and quick, and can't touch him in a phone booth."

The most intriguing option is rookie Lucky Whitehead, who might have the most Harris-like traits as a backup receiver and explosive returner. He had a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in his final college game. Fellow undrafted rookie wideout Nick Harwell has also taken turns.

Reggie Dunn, a first-year receiver who spent last year on the practice squad, finished his college career in 2012 as the only kick returner with five 100-yard kickoff returns for a touchdowns in NCAA history.

Like Beasley, the Cowboys also have given kickoff return reps to another veteran contributor: first-team safety J.J. Wilcox, the converted running back/receiver who last fielded kicks as a senior at Georgia Southern. Bisaccia approached him in the offseason about the opportunity to have the ball in his hands again.[embeddedad0]

"Special teams is actually 'we-fense.' It plays a factor in everything that we do," Wilcox said. "I'm attacking it the same way I do defense."

Bisaccia said there are subtle role differences between kickoff and punt returners, including the quicker decisions punt returners must make. But reliability and playmaking are constants.

"We like sturdy guys who can keep their balance and protect the ball regardless of which one they're playing," he said.

The job interviews continue Thursday night.

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