SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Despite dropping his first ever punt return attempt, the 49ers are standing by Jarryd Hayne, and expressed nothing but confidence in the former Australian Rugby League star ahead of their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday.
"We just felt like he was just another 49er that was in there, and was going to execute whatever we were going to call," 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. "And I think that’s a real compliment to him."
After a week of speculation as to whether or not Hayne would be active for the season opener against the Vikings, San Francisco had enough confidence in Hayne to make him their top choice to return punts, despite strong showings from Bruce Ellington and DeAndrew White in the preseason.
And after Hayne muffed his first ever attempt in the first quarter amid a strong southern wind at Levi's Stadium, he was thrown right back into the fire.
"To me, he didn’t blink. It didn’t faze him," quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "He moved on to the next play. He was ready to play offense and help this team win."
The 49ers went back to Hayne to return punts, giving him two more opportunities. On offense, he appeared in 10 plays after running back Reggie Bush left the game with a calf injury, allowing Hayne four carries for 13 yards.
Ellington was also given opportunities to return punts, which included an 85-yard touchdown that was called back after two 49ers were flagged for throwing illegal blocks. Head coach Jim Tomsula said after Monday's win he wanted Ellington returning punts to save Hayne from injury since he was the only available running back behind starter Carlos Hyde. Rookie Mike Davis was made inactive.
Despite being under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, 49ers coaches didn't see Hayne's confidence wane after dropping his first attempt after being so sure-handed during training camp and the preseason.
"That's part of the maturation process of being in this league when you're a young guy," special teams coordinator Thomas McGuaghey Jr. said. "Young players make mistakes sometimes. They're trying to make plays or trying to do the things they were brought here to do, and sometimes they get a little overzealous."
The punt in question hung in the air longer than Hayne anticipated, leading him toward the crowd of Vikings covering the kick. He lunged for the ball once it came down, leading to the fumble and giving Minnesota the ball back.
"Never did I expect it to be held up in the wind going in the opposite direction," Hayne said. "I think the biggest thing I learned is that if it’s not a catchable ball, don’t attempt to catch it."
Hayne was told in the preseason to catch every punt he could in order to gain confidence in his hands while giving the coaching staff plays to evaluate. Hayne's lone fair catch of his 10 attempts came in the last preseason game against the Chargers. Tomsula said afterwards he wanted Hayne to do it in a game just to prove he could.
With the Steelers looming Sunday, San Francisco won't reveal if it Hayne or Ellington will be the primary returner until Pittsburgh lines up their first punt.
"We'll see," McGhaughey said.
The 49ers only have just one injured player, Bush, making it more difficult to create their active 46-man roster on game days. Those decisions on who to put in uniform have a lot to do with who will contribute on special teams versus how other players might contribute on offense or defense.
"That's always a fluid conversation," McGhaughey said. "It goes all the way up until an hour before the game. So, that's why you guys laugh at me when I say we'll see, and we will. That's just kind of how it works."
While Hayne has impressed with the ball in his hands both as a return man and running back, his work with his other responsiblities on the field has also drawn praise. For example, running backs must be able to pick up blitzes and pass block. Otherwise, they won't see the field.
"He’s on top of it. He doesn’t miss blitzes," Kaepernick said. "Everything he’s seeing, he’s seeing the same way that I am, the coaches are and the rest of the running backs are. It’s really a credit to his ability to pick up on things and learn a completely new thing."
For Hayne, he's able to use mental cues from Rugby League to help.
"I think if you watch my old game, I think that’s one thing I was good at, was reading body language. I was a play maker in my old game. I would dictate to people where they would have to line up, and I have to read their body language with the plays we run as well," Hayne said.
"For me, pass protection is one of those things where I feel like I’ve adapted really well, just reading the blitzes. Obviously there are blitzes that are trickier than others, I’m nowhere near perfect. I think having Reggie and Carlos, and Bruce Miller, and Mike was well, that experience helps a lot."
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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