While Jarryd Hayne has been making a habit of burning up the field, Coach Jim Tomsula has been doing his best to put out the flames. Taking to the podium after the 49ers' second preseason game, Tomsula tried to temper expectations, saying that Hayne "Still has a long way to go." It was an admirable, if not futile, attempt. The bandwagon for the rugby-star-turned-NFL-running-back is crowded—what with a whole continent already onboard—and folks are squeezing on while there's still room (heck, the guy even has his own jersey for crying out loud).
Tomsula might be right to ward off any high expectations for the NFL rookie. After all, it's only been two games and we've seen a limited sample of Hayne's work. Even so, Hayne is arguably the most promising return specialist the 49ers have seen in years, especially when it comes to punt returns.
For the last two seasons the 49ers return game has essentially been a non-factor. In 2013, the team's 22.7 yard kick return average ranked nineteenth overall, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That same year, the combination of running back LaMichael James and wide receiver Kyle Williams had a league-high 32 fair catches, nearly matching the number of actual punt return attempts (35). The 49ers took one step forward and another step back in 2014, improving their kick return average to sixteenth overall but falling to the bottom five in punt returns, averaging just 6.5 yards. However, while the team as a whole performed marginally, then-rookie wide receiver Bruce Ellington did post respectable numbers as the team's primary returner, though he never established himself as a true threat (something Ellington is likely anxious to prove when he returns from a lingering leg injury).
Hayne, meanwhile, has been nothing but exceptional in his first two games. Sunday's highlight reel included three punt returns for 27, 34, and 23 yards. He turned heads with an over-the-shoulder catch that drew comparisons to Willie Mays, and had fans holding their breath on his second return, as he narrowly dodged a defender and slipped by two tacklers for 34 yards. In just two games, Hayne has generated 258 all-purpose yards, 108 of which have come on punt returns—an outstanding feat when you consider the 49ers had a total of 227 punt return yards last season.
If Jarryd Hayne is not the 49ers return man come season opener, then who? With two preseason games left, the 49ers will take a close look at other prospects, such as rookie receiver DeAndrew White or cornerback Marcus Cromartie. Should Ellington return to full strength, he'll likely join the mix. But if anyone wants a shot at vying with the Aussie, it won't come down to an impressive stat line—it'll be a matter of showcasing their instinct. Because if there is one thing that separates Hayne from the herd, it's his ability to rely on instinct and literally create opportunities for himself, turning what ought to have been a fair catch into a sizeable gain. For fans, it's both awe inspiring and a little frightening as they watch for one of two outcomes—another fantastic play or a staggering collision. Hayne, for his part, has acknowledged that he would call a fair catch if needed, but so far his confidence and ability have helped him elude trouble.
At this point, Hayne has done more than capture preseason headlines with his play and professionalism. He's given 49er fans hope for a revitalized return game. Yet, as Tomsula warns, there's still work to be done. With two more games to go, the rugby star will have to keep adding fuel to the fire. Either way, it doesn't seem to worry the NFL hopeful, nor his fans in Australia.
"I think they're just as excited as me," says Hayne. "Looking forward to the outcome."