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Gio Bernard may return kicks this year; Mario Alford working to earn spot

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Mario Alford has a long way to go before earning a spot on the 53-man roster, especially if Giovani Bernard is returning kicks.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest position battles to watch in training camp will feature how the kickoff and punt returner duties play out.

Brandon Tate has managed to hang on to his kickoff returner duties for the better part of four years now. Until someone can unseat him, he'll be expected to handle those duties, but he'll have to really earn it this year with other talented players gunning for the job.

One such player is wide receiver Mario Alford, whom the Bengals drafted in the seventh round of this year's NFL draft. Alford, praised for his speed, is also getting looks at punt returner this offseason, and his chances of making the final 53-man roster will largely depend on his ability to make an impact on special teams.

That said, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons isn't going to put Alford in there just to help him earn a spot on the roster, via Local 12:

"There's a lot that he has to come along on, still, to trust and put him in a game. We're not going to put anybody in there that we don't trust. Obviously we know what he can do when he does get the ball in his hands. He's very exciting. He's an explosive player in that regard in college. We're going to keep pushing him to do that: Catch balls and learn how to judge and learn how to make the proper reads and decisions and you're going to get all kinds of reps in the preseason to do that, so we'll get a good look at him."

Simmons added they'll essentially force feed Alford on kick and punt returns this preseason since they know what Tate and Adam Jones can do.

Another player who could earn one of the returner jobs this year is Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back hasn't been used on special teams much to this point because of how much he's been used on offense. With Jeremy Hill now taking on the No. 1 RB role, Bernard may be used on special teams more to ensure he's still making a significant impact on the Bengals. As Jackson said yesterday:

"Yeah, he was successful at it in college and we started to get him into it and then he became a staring player for us as a running back right away. So, I kind of had to back him out of that. I'm not saying his role's going to change but maybe he's not taking all of the carries or they’re splitting carries. We really didn't know how that was going to start off a year ago. Then here comes the emergence of Jeremy Hill and now I think that's going to help free up Gio to do some of those things. That's obviously something that we are looking at and working towards."

Bernard was one of the most electrifying returners in college football before joining the Bengals in 2013 out of UNC. He ranked first in the nation in punt return average and scored twice on punt returns in 2012, this being one of them:

Some healthy competition is a good thing for this Bengals team and the returner job will be a top one to watch starting Friday in training camp.