This is my Tuesday column.
Our understanding of the world changed a little bit when the 49ers played the Texans in a preseason game Saturday night.
Before that game, Niners running back and former Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne seemed like an off-season storyline. Someone you talked about in June, July and August. Someone who’d get cut before the regular season. An over-hyped training-camp body, perhaps semi-delusional to think he could pick up a new sport at 27. Perhaps semi-oblivious to what he’s facing in the NFL.
Now Hayne seems like a good bet not only to make the Niners’ final roster, but to play at least two key roles.
San Francisco signed two running backs this offseason — Hayne and Reggie Bush. Bush didn’t play Saturday night against the Texans because he’s fragile and the Niners want to keep him healthy for the regular season.
Bush has played all 16 games in a season only twice during his nine-year career. If/when he gets hurt, Hayne can take his place as the primary backup running back.
Hayne seemed like the primary backup Saturday night, backup to Carlos Hyde. Hayne entered the game in the first quarter and played into the third quarter. It seemed the coaches were getting him ready for the season by making him face first-string and second-string players instead of third-string scrubs.
On Hayne’s second carry ever, he burst through a hole on the left side of the offensive line, juked Texans starting free safety Rahim Moore in the open field and finally ran out of bounds after a gain of 53.
The play was a zone run to the left — the type of play running back Darren McFadden objected to when he played under former Oakland Raiders’ offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp in 2012. In hindsight, McFadden should have objected to himself. He was the problem, not Knapp.
Zone runs suit Hayne perfectly. They don’t require him to run with a low pad level, which he doesn’t have — pad level is a foreign concept in Rugby League, a non-padded collision sport.
In football, low pad level is crucial for running backs to getting through tiny holes between the offensive linemen. But most zone runs go outside the offensive linemen, so running backs end up getting hit by little cornerbacks instead of brawny middle linebackers and mammoth defensive tackles. Pad level becomes irrelevant. Just cut and run.
Hayne seems tough enough to take hits from cornerbacks. Hayne also looks like he could run over safeties — he’s big, 220 pounds.
But he’s still getting a feel for his position. “The thing we’ve got to stay on is when you get into those tighter quarters and seeing those little creases,” Jim Tomsula said about Hayne Sunday afternoon on a conference call. “That’s where the improvement is. That’s where he just has to keep working. Not that he’s bad at it. He’s not. We’ve just got to keep improving there. I just like to temper everything. We don’t need to put undue expectations on his plate right now. I just want him to stay focused on getting better.”
Of Hayne’s five carries Saturday night, only one went for more than 4 yards. So he still has things to learn. Tomsula is tempering things for a reason.
Hayne’s best chance to contribute will come on special teams — that’s where he was most impressive against the Texans, even though his biggest play came on offense.
Hayne returned two punts and one kickoff. Let’s go over each return in slow motion.
Punt No. 1: Hayne caught the ball at the 21 with a member of Houston’s kicking team, Alfred Blue, sprinting toward him at the 27. Just 6 yards between them.
Some punt returners would have gotten nervous and waived their arm to signal fair catch. Not Hayne. In one motion, he calmly fielded the ball and sidestepped Blue, who went flying past him. Then Hayne quickly cut back to his left, avoided a second tackle, sprinted forward and gained 11 yards.
Punt No. 2: Hayne caught the ball at the 17 with a member of Houston’s kicking team, Chris Polk, sprinting toward him at the 21. Just 4r yards between them.
Again, Hayne stepped his right. And again, the player in front of him completely whiffed. Polk slid by without touching Hayne, who bounced to the outside and made two more tacklers miss before running out of bounds for a gain of 13.
The kick return: Hayne caught the ball 7 yards deep in the end zone, weaved through six tacklers along the sideline, cut back to the middle of the field and made a seventh tackler miss before getting dragged down at the 26. A net gain of 33.
“Jarryd did a nice job,” Tomsula said. “He did. You saw it. I’m not shocked that Jarryd was able to field punts and run, or field kicks and run, or that Jarryd was able to see creases and take them and then get into the open field and avoid. I’ve seen him do all of those things. I’ve watched a lot of film of Jarryd Hayne playing rugby. I understand him in space.”
Last season, the Niners’ return specialist was wide receiver Bruce Ellington, who was pretty good but not aggressive. He called for a fair catch 10 times out of 23 opportunities. It was his first year ever returning punts.
This offseason, Ellington has spent most of his time rehabbing various muscle pulls, and may not be healthy when the regular season begins. Even if he is healthy, the Niners shouldn’t let him return punts or kicks. San Francisco should protect him, keep him injury-free so he can make an impact at wide receiver.
Hayne should be the Niners’ return specialist on both punts and kickoffs.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.