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Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports


49ers Notebook: Tayler Hawkins has an NFL debut to remember; 49ers wanted to keep Puka Nacua from breaking record; Sam Darnold gets a passing grade

Jan 7, 2024 at 8:19 PM--


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For the most part, Sunday's regular season finale between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams had a preseason feel to it due to both teams keeping their starters from extended action with the playoffs right around the corner. But that approach also led to some important opportunities for lesser-used players, with one of those opportunities going to a defensive back making his NFL debut in 26-year-old Tayler Hawkins.

Hawkins had a few down moments in the 21-20 loss against the Rams, including a 48-yard pass interference penalty that led to a Rams touchdown. But he also made a highlight play he's been waiting for his whole life when he dove for an interception on a tipped pass from Rams quarterback Carson Wentz in the first half.


Hawkins was clearly elated after the interception, and after the game he spoke to reporters about the memories he'll take from his NFL debut. We'll have Hawkins' comments in this version of 49ers Notebook, as well as why the 49ers were so intent on keeping Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua in check and more.

Moment in the spotlight


With the 49ers short at safety due in large part to injuries, the 49ers made the decision early last week to give Tayler Hawkins his first NFL regular season action in the finale against the Rams. Hawkins had been with the 49ers off and on as a practice squad and offseason player since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2022, but he had yet to see any playing time before Sunday.

Hawkins responded with four tackles to go with his interception, which will be a memory he'll carry with him forever.

"It meant a lot to me," Hawkins said. "It meant everything to me. We've got a good team, we've got a lot of good guys, and that might have been my only op. I don't know if I'm going to get another one so I had to go make the most of it."

Despite experiencing such a high point with his interception, Hawkins gave a lukewarm assessment of his performance overall due to a few mistakes he made throughout the course of the game.

"It was alright," Hawkins said. "The pick is obviously a good thing and takes away from a lot of the bad stuff that happened. I missed a couple tackles, cut it down, stuff like that. It is what it is."

Hawkins has been on a long journey towards making his NFL debut. After spending six seasons at San Diego State, Hawkins had to deal with an injury in 2022 that threw him off course. But the 49ers stuck with Hawkins, continued to develop him and finally rewarded him with a chance to play on Sunday.

"Probably in the preseason last year -- last game of the preseason, I broke my hand, took an injury settlement," Hawkins said. "I was out for the first seven weeks of the season. Yeah, I was in a dark place at that time, but stayed down, kept working. They brought me back, they trusted me, they believed in me. So I just put my head down and worked and an opportunity presented itself."

Will Sunday's game indeed prove to be the only chance Hawkins gets to suit up for the 49ers? Or will there be more to come? Only time will tell, but he wasn't about to let the game pass him by without making his mark.

"I talked to the guys last night, the DB group, and I told them you'll never get January 7th again," Hawkins said. "You'll never see this day again, so how do you want to be remembered for this day? So I'll definitely remember January 7."

Making it tough on Puka


Coming into Sunday's game, Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua needed just four catches and 29 yards to break the NFL records for most receptions and receiving yards in a season for a rookie. He was able to do so eventually, but not before the 49ers did what they could to stop it.

Nacua's 19-yard touchdown in the first quarter was enough to tie the previous yardage record set in 1960 by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers (1,473 yards). But actually breaking that record, as well as the receptions mark (104) set in 2021 by Dolphins receiver Jaylen Waddle, proved to be much tougher. Nacua needed to play into the third quarter before making the record-setting plays he needed.

This was exactly what the 49ers wanted to happen according to head coach Kyle Shanahan.

"We were just trying our butts off to keep them from getting one more yard and one more completion of Puka so he could play him the whole game," Shanahan said.

Rams head coach Sean McVay pulled Nacua from the game the moment he broke Waddle's record. McVay undoubtedly would have loved to get Nacua out of the game much quicker than he did, but the 49ers had other plans. For Shanahan, it was about making sure the Rams felt the anxiety that comes with playing a game where one of the primary goals is getting to the end without any injuries.

"I want them to go through the stress that we're going through," Shanahan said. "You don't want to get anyone hurt. I mean, those aren't the most fun games for us. You got to do it."

Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir was intent on keeping Nacua from breaking the record while he was in the game and felt some disappointment when Nacua wound up passing the record in the second half.

"I was sad," Lenoir said. "That first half -- I'm speaking for myself right now -- my whole mindset, I was 'You're not going to break the record on me.' That's how I feel. We were zeroed in. We knew he needed 29 yards to get the record, so we were kind of zeroed in. We didn't want him to break it, and if he did break it, we (wanted to say) he had to play all four quarters."

Both Nacua and 49ers linebacker Fred Warner are products of Brigham Young University, but Warner was more than happy to make Nacua put in some extra effort before breaking his records.

"We had to make him earn it," Warner said. "A fellow BYU Cougar, that's a huge mark for him. But like mentioned, we for sure made him work for it a little bit."

Chances are McVay isn't too upset with Shanahan's approach given the friendly nature of their relationship. Besides, if the shoe was on the other foot, Shanahan would have expected McVay to do the same.

"I'd expect it and that's why we'd throw to someone else open," Shanahan said. "I was hoping they were going to do that but I think they wanted to get him out pretty fast and I'm just glad he had to come out in the third. It was a small, small, small victory."

The Darnold gets his turn


It's possible Sunday's game may have been the first and last start for quarterback Sam Darnold as a 49er, who was given the nod while Brock Purdy got the weekend off.

Darnold began the game hot, throwing for 168 yards and one touchdown while running for another touchdown during the first half. But with backup players dominating the lineups in the second half, Darnold and the 49ers fizzled on offense, as he finished with 189 yards on 16-of-26 passing while the Rams rallied from a 20-7 halftime deficit to win the game.

Still, Sunday provided some valuable work for Darnold, who was getting his first extended game action since signing a one-year contract with the 49ers in the offseason.

"It was really good to just get out there, you know, play an entire football game," Darnold said after the game. "Obviously, the result wasn't what we all wanted, but it was good to get out there, get good quality reps."

Shanahan was happy with Darnold's performance, despite him fumbling the ball away on the final drive of the game.

"I thought Sam did some real good things," Shanahan said. "He made a number of plays that kept us out there. He did a great job scrambling. He's awesome on his sneaks, the quarterback draw. I think he moved the chains one other time with his legs, made some big throws. I know that last play was unfortunate, just stepping up in the pocket there and those guys coming from behind him with the fumble, but I was happy with him today."

Next up for Darnold, in most likelihood, will be scout team prep with fellow backup Brandon Allen. They'll have the task of playing the role of the quarterbacks the 49ers will be facing in the playoffs, several of whom they've seen already this season.

"We faced, I think, a few weeks in a row a mobile, dual threat quarterback.me and Brandon Allen have been playing that role and there's other weeks, too," Darnold said. "For example, like week two, we had the Rams and we were trying to do all the cool things that (Matthew) Stafford can do with the football. So, no, it's fun to be able to go out there and see the different plays that the defensive guys draw up and try to do everything we can to get the defense ready."

If something goes wrong with Purdy, as it did when he suffered a season-ending injury in last season's NFC Championship game, Darnold says he'll be prepared for the task.

"It was good to get out there and if they do need me during the playoff run, I'll be ready," Darnold said.

Beal making some noise


Defensive end Robert Beal has had a mostly quiet rookie season while being sidelined with a hamstring injury, but on Sunday he registered the first sack of his NFL career after tripping up Wentz in the third quarter.


Beal came off injured reserve in late November and wound up playing in three regular season games to wrap up his rookie season. With defensive end Clelin Ferrell leaving Sunday's game due to a knee injury, Beal is making progress at the right time.

"He's been great since he came back from IR," Shanahan said. "He's getting better and better each week and today was good for him. I'm excited to watch the tape and see exactly how he did, but seemed like he did some good things."



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