SANTA CLARA –- Jarryd Hayne’s remarkable audition for a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster came to an impressive conclusion on Thursday night.
Hayne figures to make the team’s initial 53-man roster after catching, running and willing his way into a strong four-game showing during the exhibition season.
Hayne and Bruce Ellington figure to be the 49ers’ top two candidates to handle the team’s return chores. But is there a clear-cut winner in that competition after both enjoyed strong closing arguments?
“Everything will be clear-cut right after the weekend,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said after his team capped the exhibition season with a 14-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in a game in which the starters watched from the sidelines.
Hayne finished as the NFL’s second-leading rusher during the exhibition season with 175 yards on 25 attempts. Detroit’s Zach Zenner gained 183 yards on 10 more attempts. Hayne had a game-high 58 yards 10 attempts on Friday against the Chargers, and said he is feeling more natural in American football after his career in rugby league.
“For the first time I was comfortable and got my pads low which is good, so it’s good to be working on that all the time and finally get that down pat,” Hayne said. “Yeah, I feel like it was good.”
Hayne lowered the boom on a bruising 12-yard run in which he decked cornerback Lowell Rose, who spent 2013 training camp with the 49ers. The play energized the 49ers’ bench and was replayed several times on the big screens to the delight of the fans at Levi’s Stadium.
“Our coaches are always about lowering our shoulders, you know, getting ready for contact,” Hayne said. “So it was just a situation that, like I said, all that training, all the hours on the field, to finally see it come together.”
Said Tomsula of Hayne’s hit on Rose, “I’m not going to disrespect any other player, but I will tell you that I think Jarryd is a tough guy.”
Hayne’s main chance to be a contributor this season is likely as a return specialist. He averaged 14.3 yards on three returns. On nine returns this summer, he averaged 18.1 yards. On his final time deep, the 49ers gave him orders to call for a fair catch – no matter what -– and just stand there, Tomsula said.
“He can help us a lot,” Ellington said. “He knows how to set it up and make big plays. Special teams is something we didn’t have last year, so I think with him, he can help us out a lot.”
Ellington had a strong final game of the exhibition season after being limited through the entire offseason program and most of training camp with a right hamstring strain.
A minute into the game, Ellington caught a short slant from his college teammate, Dylan Thompson, and took it the rest of the way for a 70-yard touchdown. Ellington also averaged 14.7 yards on three punt returns. “
“That’s the reason Bruce is here,” Tomsula said. “That’s what we know Bruce can do.”
Ellington was the 49ers’ return specialist last season, but he’s not sure how that is going to play out, beginning on Monday, Sept. 14, when the 49ers open the season against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Me, of course I want to be that,” Ellington said. “But it’s up the coaches (to decide) who makes the most plays.”
--Tomsula opted to give all of his starters the night off. Instead, the team had a full practice of approximately 45 plays on Wednesday. He said he plans to have another full practice on Friday.
The 49ers are expected to make one round of cuts on Friday morning. The final players cut on Saturday will most likely be the players the 49ers would like to bring back to the practice squad.
--Even backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert did not see action. Gabbert had a strong exhibition season, completing 23 of 28 pass attempts (82.1 percent) for 203 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
“We’ve played Blaine Gabbert a lot,” Tomsula said. “We have evaluated Blaine. We’ve got enough film on Blaine to go through teaching and things like that. And we wanted to work some young offensive linemen. And, quite frankly, we wanted to give Dylan an opportunity to get out there and ‘See what you got there, buddy.’ ”