SANTA CLARA, Calif. - No one really knew what to expect of Jarryd Hayne when he initially signed with the 49ers in the offseason.
In Australia, he was one of the country's biggest sports stars. In the United States, at least in the beginning, many were unsure he was more than a novelty. But after an awfully impressive preseason, there's a real chance he makes the team.
The 49ers have to announce final cuts by Saturday at 1 p.m. local time. They have a bevy of running backs and capable return men, including Hayne. They drafted running back Mike Davis in the fourth round last spring and got Kendall Hunter back after missing all of last season recovering from an ACL tear.
In four preseason games, Hayne averaged 18.1 yards returning punts and was the most exciting player on the field. There's no statistic measuring the electricity he brought to an otherwise-dull preseason.
But Hayne was good on offense, to boot. He finished second in the NFL with 175 preseason yards rushing and averaged a league-best 7.0 yards per carry. Detroit's Zach Zenner, the exhibition rushing leader, had eight more yards on 10 more carries.
Hayne did a little bit of everything, including covering punts as a gunner facing double teams.
"I saw him catch passes. I saw him run the ball," 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said. "There were some really good plays and just like everybody else, there were a couple there in tight spaces and we’ve got to go. We have to keep working on that. I saw him in the passing game. I saw him tackle in coverage units. I saw him return balls, catch balls and return balls."
One of the criticisms of Hayne as a ball carrier was his high pad level. In Rugby League, there were no shoulder pads. Hayne wasn't able to use his shoulders as bumpers like he can in pro football.
But he did Thursday - perhaps for the first time.
In the third quarter, quarterback Dylan Thompson hit Hayne on a short screen pass to the right. Hayne made a move up the right sideline, and dropped his shoulder into cornerback Lowell Rose on a gain of 12. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Hayne had no problem bowling over Rose (192 pounds), much to the delight of his excited teammates nearby on the bench.
"For the first time I was comfortable and got my pads low which is good, so it’s good to be working on that all the time and finally get that down pat," Hayne said.
"Our coaches are always about lowering our shoulders, you know, getting ready for contact. So it was just a situation that, like I said, all that training, all the hours on the field, to finally see it come together."
Tomsula said of the play, "I’m not going to disrespect any other player, but I will tell you that I think Jarryd is a tough guy."
Hayne appears to be a quick learner with the necessary instincts to play football at a high level, particularly with the ball in his hands. But the other parts of his game still need work. He must learn to pass protect and pick up blitzes. He needs to find other ways to contribute on special teams, like he did Thursday when he made a tackle for a 1-yard loss on a punt return.
And he must learn the mental nuances of returning punts. In the first quarter, Hayne caught a punt at the 6-yard line, breaking one of the rules of punt returning.
Before fielding a punt in the fourth quarter, Hayne had never called for a fair catch. He had room to run, but was instructed otherwise by his head coach.
"He’s shown he can do it. Just fair catch and stand there," Tomsula said.
Will he make the final cut? We think he did, according to our latest roster projection.
But Tomsula won't commit publicly to Hayne's future. When asked if Hayne will be the primary return man, or if it will be the more experienced Ellington, Tomsula balked.
"Everything will be clear-cut right after the weekend," he said.
Follow Chris Biderman on Twitter.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com