SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It was an unusually windy night at Levi's Stadium, which made things tricky for new return man Jarryd Hayne.
Hayne was given punt return duties by 49ers new head coach Jim Tomsula in Monday night's season-opening 20-3 win over the Vikings. It was an extreme vote of confidence in the former Australian Rugby League star, after playing just four preseason games, where he returned nine punts with an 18-yard average.
Coming from the south, the brisk and unpredictable wind played a prominent role in Monday's game. On Hayne's first ever NFL punt return, he had the wind at his back, and left-footed punter Jeff Locke hit a punt that hung up in the air, and forced Hayne to run up into the slew of players bearing down on him.
Hayne committed the cardinal sin of dropping the punt on his first ever attempt. On Monday Night Football, no less.
"I was disappointed with that first drop. Other than that, I felt it was smooth," Hayne said afterwards.
Tomsula was asked after the game if there was any second guessing his decision to make Hayne his punt returner after that initial drop.
"No, sir," Tomsula said. "Players play football, and sometimes things happen. Jarryd has got the mindset, in my mind, that he'll over come...The only thing that I can tell the guys that I can promise them will happen in a football game, is something's not going to go right somewhere. And we need to be able to get to the next play, and we need to keep going. Don't let one play hurt you twice."
"I'm very happy with Jarryd."
Hayne's role changed early in the game, after the 49ers' No. 2 running back, Reggie Bush sustained a calf injury that ended his night after just two carries. Rookie running back Mike Davis was inactive, making Hayne the only back up to starting running back Carlos Hyde, who ran for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
Bush's injury meant Tomsula elected to take Hayne off punt returns in order avoid injury in case anything happened to Hyde. And it also allowed Hayne to make his debut as a running back. He ran for 13 yards on four carries after finishing second in the NFL with 175 on 25 carries in the preseason. His 7.0-yard average led the NFL.
Tomsula indicated Bush's injury was not severe. His status for next Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers is unknown.
For Hayne, he's hoping Monday night's rocky start is just the beginning of a successful run as the 49ers top punt returner. He signed a three-year deal to play football for the first time, with the 49ers, in the spring.
"I guess it's tough to look back and see how far I've come," Hayne said. "Everything happens so fast over here. Every day I've been going to meetings thinking that I might as well be in Australia playing in another league. I'm just in there, learning and obviously just doing me best."
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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