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Tuesday, August 21, 2012
For Patriots, not-so-happy returns

By Mike Rodak

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last week, the return game was the focus of discussion in New England, when Olympic sprinter and former Florida running back Jeff Demps joined the Patriots.

Demps was not eligible to suit up for the team's loss to the Eagles -- he could make his debut Friday in Tampa -- but after using Danny Woodhead on kick returns and Julian Edelman on punt returns in their preseason opener, the Patriots switched things up on Monday night.

Veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth lined up at kick returner, something he also did during training camp. He hasn't returned a kickoff in a regular season game since 2003, but if Demps doesn't make an immediate impact at the position, the potential dual role could help Stallworth's case for a roster spot.

Stallworth's potential competition at receiver is Deion Branch, who lined up as a punt returner twice Monday night but did not record an official return. Branch hasn't returned a punt in a regular season game since 2004.

"I never got a chance to do it (tonight). One time the (punter) hit it pretty good and the next one he kicked away from me," Branch said. "Don't know why, I haven't been back there in years. Should've just kicked it to me and given me a chance."

Another player the Patriots gave a chance at punt returner on Monday night was undrafted rookie running back Brandon Bolden. In his first chance at a return, Bolden muffed the catch and the ball was recovered by the Eagles, setting up a touchdown. On his next try, Bolden fielded it cleanly, but was rocked by Eagles fullback Stanley Havili and held to a one-yard return.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman, the team's leading punt returner in 2011, also struggled, muffing the catch on the Eagles' first punt of the game. He recovered it, but it could be another strike against Edelman at a position where the Patriots also tried tight end Aaron Hernandez, safety Patrick Chung and rookie receiver Jeremy Ebert during training camp.

The next audition at kick returner likely will be Demps, but Monday night made it clear that the Patriots are continuing to search for answers at both returner spots.