NEW ORLEANS -- On Wednesday morning, 49ers special teams assistant Tracy Smith called Baltimore's Jacoby Jones "the best kick returner in the NFL right now."
Not all that long ago, Devin Hester held that title, indisputably.
And Jones, like much of America, was tuned in on Feb. 4, 2007, when Hester took Adam Vinatieri's kickoff to open Super Bowl XLI and raced back 92 yards for a touchdown.
Jones just happened to be in Indianapolis at the time, a relative unknown from tiny Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., training for the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine at St. Vincent Sports Performance camp. As the Colts flailed at a passing Hester, and just about everyone else in Indiana slunk back in disgust, Jones' eyes widened.
"I watched that kid take off," Jones recalled, "and I said, 'Man, there he go ... bad boy.'"
Nearly six years to the day after that moment, Jones will have his own chance to make Super Bowl memories.
A New Orleans native, Jones sports a tattoo that pays tribute to his childhood home, which was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Sunday will mark his second career game in the Superdome -- he was part of a Texans team that lost to the Saints during the 2011 season -- and he would love nothing more than to deliver a Hester-like moment in front of his hometown fans, on the game's brightest stage.
"Playing in the Super Bowl (is special), period," Jones said Wednesday. "Hall of Famers haven't been in the Super Bowl ... much less playing in New Orleans, that's the icing on the cake."
The 49ers will head into this weekend's game extremely wary of what Jones can do. Jones returned two kickoffs for scores this season and averaged more than 30 yards per kick return. His 108-yard TD return earlier this season against the Cowboys tied an NFL record; he later added a 105-yard touchdown vs. Oakland.
"He's dangerous every single kick," Smith said. "Jacoby's fantastic and he's from New Orleans, so he couldn't be more excited to be here.
"You have to go through every ball; he's taking the ball out with his back foot on the line because he feels good and he's playing good."
Jones' fearlessness alone makes him dangerous. Whereas the majority of NFL return men will take a knee on a ball more than two or three yards deep in the end zone, Jones has no such boundary.
Baltimore's game plan for him is the equivalent of a base-stealer in baseball with an eternal green light.
"We're going to be aggressive," said Jones of the Ravens' approach on kick returns. "That's all I have to hear, you don't have to tell me twice. If you have a coach that has faith in you, and the guys that are blocking for you have faith in you, that's all you need."
The Colts ultimately overcame that electrifying Hester run to capture Super Bowl XLI. The 49ers would prefer to avoid trying to recover from a similar blow.
"Our world is big swings, so a game like this ... every play could be ballgame out there," Smith said. "We love to cover kicks, there's nothing more fun than getting down and covering kicks. But on the kickoff team, touchbacks are wins, so there's a challenge there."
Making the 49ers' coverage challenge even tougher: Jones excels on punt returns, too, averaging 10 yards per attempt in his career. Bolstering that number is the 63-yard runback Jones had in a critical November win over the Steelers.
San Francisco will counter there with punter Andy Lee, a first-team All-Pro and owner of one of the league's most powerful legs. But even Lee readily admitted that, short of kicking the ball out of bounds, there's only so much he can do to slow down Jones.
"He's a great returner, I have a lot of respect for him," Lee said. "Then again, I have to try to do my job without worrying so much about him, without letting it affect me.
"I don't try to change anything for those guys. When you try to start changing the way you punt for a certain guy or doing something you're not used to do, especially in the Super Bowl ... I'll try to go out there and know that my guys do a great job and do the best job I can to help them out."
The 49ers' 2011 playoff run came crashing to a halt when their special teams deserted them during the NFC championship game.
Could the same unit cost them again Sunday? Absolutely, if Jones has anything to say about it. "In games like this, you just want to work for good drives and field position," Jones said. "So when one pops open, it's a blessing."