Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Former Australian Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne is still learning the ropes of punt returning

A couple key 49ers special teamers are still learning on the job four games into the season.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Things might not be coming as naturally for Jarryd Hayne as they appeared in the preseason, when he averaged over 18 yards on punt returns. The former Rugby League star is still taking his lumps.

Hayne was ran into by fellow special teamer L.J. McCray on a second-quarter punt in Sunday's 17-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, causing Hayne's second muffed punt of the season. The first came on his first ever attempt in the season opener against the Vikings.

According to special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr., it was Hayne's fault McCray careened into him before he was able to make the catch, causing cornerback Dontae Johnson to scramble for the fumble recovery at the 49ers' 28-yard line.

"Just got to make a decision earlier," McGuaghey said Wednesday. "You can't wait that late to throw a fair catch up in traffic like that. And again, that comes with time and experience. It's kind of hard to simulate in practice."

McGaughey said returners are instructed to shout something when calling for a fair catch. That way, the return team can focus on its blocks without having to look at the returner to see if he's going to return the punt.

"They are listening for a signal or a sign, listening for a word from the returner. And once he hears that, then he'll peel off," McGaughey said. "But, (McCray's) job is to block. His job's not to watch the ball, because he'll never be able to get his block."

Hayne is averaging 9.3 yards on six returns while making three fair catches. His long return of 37 yards came in Week 3's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, when it set up Colin Kaepernick's lone rushing touchdown of the season.

Meanwhile, Hayne isn't the only special teamer going through growing pains. Rookie punter Bradley Pinion, drafted in the fifth round to replace Andy Lee, average 41.2 yards on six punts Sunday. Three were pretty good. The other three, not so much.

Pinion had punts of 45, 21, 59, 36, 30 and 56 yards. McGaughey said those struggles with consistency are typical of a young player.

"You get in that environment trying to do too much. You make a mistake and then the nixt time you come back and you try to make up for the mistake as opposed to just being the same guy every time," McGaughey said.

Pinion, 21, is one of the bigger punters in the league at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. During practice, he regularly booms punts 50 yards or more, but has struggled to consistently do it in games.

"If you feel like you've got to make a play, you want to flip the field, trying to hit a big ball and for Bradley, less is more," McGaughey said. "I think that's something that he's starting understand the further we get along in the process."

For the year, Pinion is averaging 44.3 yards after Lee averaged 46.8 in 2014. Lee was traded to the Browns June 6 and is averaging 52.7 yards per punt this season.

"Yeah, (Pinion's) trying too hard...All he has to do is make contact with the ball, the ball is going to take off," McGaughey said. "But, in a rookie's mind, in a punter's mind, 'I've got to guerilla the thing.' And you really don't have to. Just make good, solid contact and consistent contact."


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.

E-mail Niners Digest:

Get updates from Niners Digest by following here and become a subscriber to receive access to premium content and analysis.