SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers coaches won't divulge whether or not former Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne will be made active when San Francisco opens its regular season against the Minnesota Vikings Monday. Only 46 players on the 53-man roster are eligible to play in each game.
Hayne, of course, had an explosive preseason, where he averaged 18.1 yards on nine punt returns and finished second in the NFL with 175 yards rushing. Not bad for someone playing the sport for the first time.
And as one of the biggest sports stars in Australia, Hayne's switch has been the country's biggest stories of the year. By making the final 53-man roster, Hayne has defied nearly every expectation since the team announced his signing in March.
However, if the 49ers are planning on playing Hayne in their first regular season game, they might be using chicanery with their words leading up to the game.
"You got to keep everything in perspective. He’s a young player in this league. He’s new. He’s a rookie," 49ers special teams coach Thomas McGaughey Jr. said Thursday.
"This is where the real bullets fly. This isn’t paint ball, this is real bullets. So we just got to temper it all, take it all with a grain of salt and just kind of move forward. As the weeks go on and things start to progress, then we’ll address it then."
McGaughey's words weren't exactly a strong endorsement of Hayne's chances of being the 49ers' top return man in the opener. To be sure, McGaughey has more experienced options at his disposal, like last season's top return man Bruce Ellington and rookie receiver DeAndrew White, who led San Francisco with a 22.8-yard average on punt returns in the preseason.
"In Jarryd’s situation, just like everybody that is a first-year player here, you’re into game preparation now, so you’ve got that aspect of it," head coach Jim Tomsula said. "But, we’ve also got to stay on the development side of it. There has to be those techniques, those fundamentals, the developing that has to stay on course, has to stay on point. And we have got to stay on that road. And that first year for all rookie players is, that’s the line that you balance there. How much do you give them? How much don’t? When is it time? So, that’s just where that has to stay."
Ellington figures to have a prominent role on the offense, possibly as the team's No. 3 receiving option behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. White saw plenty of special teams action during his collegiate career at Alabama, where he earned strong reviews from his former head coach Nick Saban for his play as a gunner in punt coverage. Those players simply have more value because they are more versatile, which comes with experience.
Experience is what Hayne lacks, despite his strong preseason.
But the 49ers have offered Hayne the chance to become a more versatile piece of the roster. He's lined up on the inside while covering kick offs, and saw time at gunner, facing double teams, in the season finale against the Chargers.
"It’s a learning situation for him. Every experience is a new experience for him," said McGaughey. "He’s going to get better at it. It’s my job, me and coach Hightower, ask a special teams staff, to get him better at it. We will. It’s just something he’s going to have to learn."
Tomsula said, "I guess that’s why I temper all this speculation because I don’t want to take anything away from what the man has achieved. But, all he’s achieved was an opportunity to be in the locker room. That has to continue. And he’s the kind of guy that will do that."
Hayne, with a number of other rookies, was wearing a scout team jersey as the 49ers' practice Thursday. His number 44 represented Vikings' running back Matt Asiata. The scout team had at least 11 members of the 53-man roster and practice squad wearing numbers identifiable to Minnesota's players.
The 49ers won't announce which seven players will be made inactive until 90 minutes before kick off Monday.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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