Jarryd Hayne’s first notable NFL action surely wasn’t how he envisioned it when he was scratching and clawing for a roster spot in training camp.
The former rugby league star made his mark on punt returns in the preseason, often with his ability to make defenders miss badly and other times with brute force, but when his No38 was called on Monday for the first official return of his NFL career, calamity struck.
The new San Francisco recruit misjudged the ball off Minnesota Vikings punter Bradley Pinion’s leg in the opening quarter and by the time he realised where it was headed, it was too late.
He dived forward, but the ball hit him in the stomach and squirted loose, recovered by the Vikings in one of the pivotal early moments of the contest.
The 27-year-old, who gave up a lucrative NRL career to pursue his American dream, muttered to himself as he walked off the field, his head down in disappointment. But there was plenty of time to put the mistake in the rearview mirror (no points were scored off the turnover).
And when he fielded his second punt – Hayne was back to return on another occasion but the ball went out of bounds – he cleanly cradled it and steamed ahead for 10 yards. However, running into the kicker was called on the play, and the return was nullified.
The misfortunes of another player opened up more opportunity for Hayne during the team’s 20-3 victory. Reggie Bush, the 49ers’ No2 running back and passing-down specialist, went down in the first quarter with a calf injury and was ruled out of the contest.
Hayne soon replaced Bush in passing situations and was often lined up next to quarterback Colin Kaepernick in shotgun formations. When he got his shot on offense, he was effective. Hayne Plane juked veteran cornerback Terence Newman on a swing pass for a seven-yard gain on his first career reception, showing his elusiveness.
The 6ft 2in Hayne’s biggest play of the game showed his power as well, a nine-yard scamper in the second quarter. He bulldozed linebacker Chad Greenway on the rush, and finally fell forward for three more yards after initial contact, a display of what the bruising 220-pounder can do on the gridiron.
He didn’t have enough chances on Monday to really draw an evaluation outside of what he did in the preseason, but there will likely be more chances going forward.
If the oft-injured Bush is sidelined for an extended period of time, Hayne will find more snaps on offense playing behind starting tailback Carlos Hyde (who rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns on Monday).
If the former No2 overall draft pick Bush returns to health quickly, offensive snaps will be much harder to come by. And with Bruce Ellington also an option in the return game – he replaced Hayne in the first half on punts, presumable to preserve Hayne as one of two healthy running backs – it’s unclear what Hayne’s role could be.