Jarryd Hayne gives 49ers right answers in their game

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.

Who knew?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 39 Comments

  1. I really liked what I saw as well, but I feel like it’s too soon to jump to these kind of conclusions personally.

  2. That 53 yard scamper was nice, but not what impressed me the most. What impressed me was how he fielded punts with no fear. In Rugby there is no fair catch, and Hayne showed that skill, or lack there of, which does not currently exist in the NFL. Watch out, this could change special teams forever if utilized correctly. Very excited to see where it goes.

  3. Good start, but I like to consider a body of work before making final decisions. So if hayne is in who is out – hunter, mike davis?

    1. Probably Hunter, with Davis they might be able to stash on the practice squad, but that’s a big maybe. This is a make or break year for Baalke, some tough decisions ahead.

      1. I was enthusiastic about Hayne as well. I just didn’t think he would get a chance to show his stuff so early. What I really objected too were people who questioned his ability to take an NFL hit. It bordered on egotistical arrogance by Americans. Granted no one hits as hard as the players in the NFL, however a persons heart is what the measure is for toughness. Although playing the game can separate the men from the boys, just because you have not played the game does not mean you can’t take those hits. I read so many posts from people who seemed to think that taking big hits in BCS games and the NFL is the ultimate measure of toughness. I suspect people who think that don’t have a clue of what tough really is.

  4. “Who knew?”
    Scooter did. He was touting Jarryd before he announced his intent to try the NFL. Since his arrival veteran teammates raved about his athleticism. Now we’ve seen him apply it.
    Hayne has excellent field vision and elusiveness. His size and speed make him hard to bring down when defenders do get close enough.
    PS: did you folks see on PFT Mike Davis’ $1800 dinner tab? I remember Dez Bryant’s rookie year he had balked at carrying veterans’ gear to the practice field, so the tab at his rookie dinner was like $30k-35k!

    1. Well, if I’m honest I think I was more excitement than expectation regarding Hayne! He looked better than I expected against the Texans.

  5. Scooter/CFC/Seb all saw Hayne making the team. I thought it was a fairly remote chance, but Hayne made the decision easy for me. Hunter has been MIA and is another liability in durability. The 49ers should sub out Hayne for Hunter when final cuts come around. Kudos to Grant for a well written article….

    1. I’d still like to see him make some more plays in the return game in the coming weeks before finding a roster spot for him, but so far so good.

  6. Hayne has called America coffee “rubbish.” He’s criticized our brew several times.

    So I did a little research. Apparently Australia has quite a coffee culture. They like their coffee strong, and high quality. They enjoy coffee like Europeans do. At a table, unrushed. Not the on the go stuff we drink.

    Can someone get this guy a good cup of joe? Maybe some Flying Goat or Aroma Roasters single origin. I’m not in the city but I hear 4-Barrel and Blue Bottle are good.

    National pride is at stake.

    1. Seb
      What’s that rad coffee stand @ Bloomfield & 116? Hayne might like their stuff. Serious.

        1. Yeah, that joint. I like it but a bit too strong for my wife. She doesn’t use milk/cream so we brew mild Brazilian beans at home.

    2. Talked with a coffee trader years ago. They sell their best beans to France and Italy. The second best goes to other European countries. They sweep the floor and package the rest to America.

    3. Brodie, that’s a nice reference to the city, but I doubt that Hayne will come from Santa Clara all the way to the city for a cup of coffee. Long ago I used to enjoy being greeted by the city with the smell of the Folgers roasting plant.

      1. Haven’t found any highlights. Found this.

        I hope he’s just a training camp body. If the 49ers actually need this guy, we could be in big trouble.

        OK, I’m unfairly judging a player I’m not familiar with. I’m just disappointed we didn’t get a 7th rounder for him. That would have signaled the 49ers really do like the left side of their line as it stands, and aren’t totally desperate for O-line help.

      2. Struggled with Osgood-Schlatters disease as an eighth grader, knees were too painful to allow him to play football. Did some mission work as a Mormon. Overcame the knee issues and earned his way through college with MVP like honors. Went undrafted, picked up by the Ravens. Has played OT and G….

  7. Who knew?
    Well I predicted that he would be the stand out rookie with 3 TD from punt returns and a couple of runs to set up a TD. If he improves from what we saw he might be unstoppable.
    So nice to have these pre-season dreams…….

      1. I think trading Celik makes more sense in respect to variety in respect to the Niners. Celik is too like VMc. The only reason to keep him over Carrier is if they anticipate trading or cutting V Mc.

  8. There wasn’t much to be excited with in this game but Hayne was and I was excited to hear Thomas played good at OL. I was big on him and was worried with not hearing much related to him this offseason.

    Do you see Trent using a pick for a trade this season to bring in a player? After such a loss of talent this offseason that would be good to see

  9. Niners just traded Asante Cleveland to the Pats for Jordan Devey. Wonder if they will move Boone to RT.

  10. I love the guy. Aussies are second to none.

    I laughed after the run when he slapped the ball with his open hand and then Bruce Miller went over to tap helmets and Hayne high five him. He’s still not used to wearing helmet. It was great.

    I look forward to this guy being around.

    Good article Grant.

  11. Tap the brakes Grant. Yes Haynes lloked good against the Texans, but that in no way guarantees him a spot on the roster. It helps, but it only does that.

  12. Jarryd’s one of the best kick returners that rugby league has ever produced. Trust the Aussie on this, that was average by his standards. Don’t get too excited by one game, sure. But take into account that he’s been an elite kick returner without pads since he was 18.

  13. As an aussie, a Rugby League fan and an occasional NFL watcher, you have no idea how good it is seeing Jarryd Hayne not playing against my teams, and instead now playing for a team I can barrack for. As you can imagine, the press over here is a tad one-eyed – is great to read an honest report on how the locals think he is going. I guess you are starting to see some of his skills – His vision and ability to find gaps was freakish on the league field.

    As much as I want him to succeed, and believe he will, I do also want to wait to see him play a few more games and see how the opposition starts attacking his punt returns knowing he can step before I start raising my hopes that he will be on the roster.

    In the mean time – can someone over there please get him to a proper coffee shop….. An athlete cannot play on drip coffee !

  14. Hayne may never call a fair catch if he can juke a player in his face to fall down.
    He should take advantage of another rule. If the ball is high and the defender is close, Hayne should run up to get the ball, make contact, draw a flag, then move back to catch the ball. He should be looking up at the ball while making contact, and if he does not break a long return, the flag will add 10 yards and guarantee possession of the ball.

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