SANTA CLARA -- LaMichael James could be summoned off the bench to spark the 49ers' punt-return efforts, a role that's strictly belonged to Kyle Williams through six games.

Coach Jim Harbaugh did not, however, express any discontent Monday with Williams, who's averaged 7.1 yards on eight returns while otherwise opting for 16 fair catches.

"Those fair catches aren't all on Kyle," Harbaugh said in noting how the 49ers improperly blocked opponents' gunners. "He does a good job of knowing whether to fair catch or return."

Williams' 16 fair catches already are the ninth-most in a season by the 49ers. Vinny Sutherland had the most with 21 in 2001, while 20 were made by John Taylor (1989), Dexter Carter (1993) and Arnaz Battle (2004).

San Francisco 49ers’ LaMichael James (23) runs against Houston Texans’ Whitney Mercilus (59) in the third quarter at Candlestick Park in San
San Francisco 49ers' LaMichael James (23) runs against Houston Texans' Whitney Mercilus (59) in the third quarter at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

"They're kicking it short and putting it in a spot where gunners are able to make a play on me and force a fair catch," Williams said. "You never want to be too safe or too risky and you want to get something going."

James, a 2011 second-round pick, has been groomed for the past year as a punt returner, along with his backup duties at running back. But he was a healthy scratch Sunday, after missing the first three games with a sprained knee.

"His development has been fine. He'll be back playing," Harbaugh said. "There's been talk about 'insurance.' This is no slight to LaMichael. He's a very valuable member to the team."

Harbaugh could have been referring to this Twitter post by James two weeks ago that was subsequently deleted: "Some things I just don't understand at all. I don't work at State Farm I'm not trying to be insurance." James followed up that post by claiming it was not 49ers-related.

"There's going to come a time, like last year, where he's fully in the mix and that time will come," Harbaugh said. "He wants to dress and contribute."

James came on late last season as a kickoff returner, highlighted by a 62-yard return at New England before seven more postseason returns.

James sent out another cryptic tweet Sunday night: "If I never played another down in my career I've accomplished more in life then majority of my critics ever thought I would ..."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.