Jarryd Hayne was right in his element, apparently.
The former Australian Rugby League star, playing in his first NFL game as a running back and return man, was the story of the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason opener.
It started with his second carry of his football career, when he burst through the line and streaked down the left side of the field for a 53-yard run, setting up San Francisco’s first touchdown of the season, when backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert found Garrett Celek from 10 yards out.
"I saw (Hayne) hit the hole and just go," Gabbert said. "Bruce (Miller) threw somebody out of the park, opened up a giant hole for Jarryd, and then he made the safety miss in open space and he almost broke it."
Later in the second quarter, Hayne made two Texans miss, and stiff armed one more on a 13-yard punt return. It didn’t look like the first organized football game of Hayne’s life, but it was. He was the game’s leading rusher with 63 yards on five attempts.
"He's a premier athlete in the world in space," first-year head coach Jim Tomsula said. "It seems like everybody's surprised. I'm not."
But Tomsula maintained perspective, knowing Hayne has a long way to go beyond the first preseason game if he plans on winning a roster spot. "He did some good things, but it's the first preseason game and we've got to grow from here ... You can still see that he's feeling his way through some of those runs and the tight holes."
For all the talk about Hayne needing to adjust his natural running style this preseason as he transitions from rugby, Hayne impressed at least one teammate Saturday. "He ran like a football player tonight," Gabbert said.
Gabbert completed 8 of 11 for 86 yards and the touchdown in his four series running the offense. He was smooth and efficient, finding his check downs and delivering his throws accurately. His longest completion went for 25 yards to receiver Jerome Simpson, setting up a 37-yard field goal by Phil Dawson in the second quarter.
Gabbert’s strong night came after a miserable showing in the preseason last year, when he completed 46.8 percent with a 54.0 quarterback rating. His rating Saturday night: 125.6.
"(I) just approach every day with a professional mindset and just get better, and let the play speak for itself. That carried over in the game today," Gabbert said.
The 49ers wound up losing, 23-10, thanks to a 58-yard Cecil Shorts touchdown catch and run on Houston’s opening drive. In the third quarter, reserve quarterback Tom Savage hit rookie receiver Jaelen Strong for a 10-yard touchdown. Randy Bullock added two second-half field goals.
San Francisco’s offense struggled on third down, converting just 1 of 8 attempts. The third-team offensive line got off to a rough start for undrafted quarterback Dylan Thompson, when he was sacked twice on his first drive, including a safety when Jason Ankrah beat right tackle Trent Brown.
The highlight of the night for San Francisco's defense came in the first quarter, when they stuffed the Texans eight times inside the their own 4-yard line, including seven running plays. The lone passing play led to a pass interference flag on Tramaine Brock, giving Houston a new set of downs.
"In the preseason, to be put in that situation early, I'm really happy that arose to see where we are," Tomsula said. "That was team defense. It was good to have the opportunity to see that."
Reserve nose tackle Mike Purcell was a constant force for the 49ers when he was on the field, particularly defending the run. He consistently pushed his blockers back, and even notched a loss for three-yards in the Texans' backfield during the goal line stand. Safety Eric Reid and cornerback Shareece Wright stopped running back Alfred Blue at the goal line on fourth down, giving San Francisco the ball back.
Then, Hayne broke his long run and the Celek scored his touchdown, giving the 49ers a potential 14-point swing. But San Francisco didn't get enough from the offense overall, getting out gained 402-199 for the night. The Texans controlled the game, winning the possession battle 40:06 to 19:54.
Thompson finished with 15 yards on 4 of 6 completions, with a late interception by Kurtis Drummond.
Colin Kaepernick played just one series before giving way to Gabbert, completing one pass on three attempts, finding Anquan Boldin for an early 14-yard reception.
--After the game, Tomsula said inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf strain) was the only 49er to suffer an injury. LB NaVorro Bowman, TE Vernon Davis, DE Darnell Dockett and RB Reggie Bush did not play. WR Bruce Ellington, LB Philip Wheeler, WR Dres Anderson, LB Nick Bellore, RB Kendall Hunter, OLB Aaron Lynch, C Daniel Kilgore, WR DeAndre Smelter, DB Jimmie Ward, and LB Michael Wilhoite did not travel with the team.
The 49ers play their second preseason game next Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium.