SANTA CLARA -– Bruce Ellington was on the sideline for most of training camp as the battle for the No. 3 wide receiver and return specialist marched forward without him.
Ellington is finally healthy enough to play, and he showed more in the first minute of the 49ers’ final exhibition game than most of the other receivers showed all summer.
Ellington caught a short slant from undrafted rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson in stride, angled across the field and sprinted through the San Diego Chargers’ defense for a 70-yard touchdown.
The sparse crowd saw Ellington and Jarryd Hayne, two players who are competing for the job as the 49ers’ return specialist, show their attributes and make their cases for regular-season roles.
With all the notable players for both teams on the sideline, the 49ers reserves ended the exhibition season with a 14-12 victory over the Chargers on Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium.
The other candidates for the No. 3 job also had some plays, too. Quinton Patton scored the two-point conversion on Thompson’s back-shoulder toss. And undrafted rookie DeAndrew White made a leaping 36-yard catch over Chargers cornerback Lowell Rose.
The 49ers rested all of their starters on offense. Not only did Colin Kaepernick sit out the exhibition finale, but backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert did not step on the field, either.
Coach Jim Tomsula decided to take no chances with his first regular-season opener approaching on Monday, Sept. 14, against the Minnesota Vikings.
In addition to the 49ers’ top two quarterbacks, running backs Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush, receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, and offensive linemen Joe Staley, Alex Boone, Marcus Martin, Jordan Devey and Erik Pears were held out of action as a precaution.
The only 49ers who played were those who remain in competition for specific roles or find themselves on the bubble for roster spots.
Prior to Ellington’s long touchdown, tight end Garrett Celek led the 49ers in the exhibition season with 51 receiving yards. Ellington could also be a factor in the return game, as he competes against Hayne for the return job.
Ellington returned a punt 26 yards. An additional 15 yards were gained when San Diego’s John Phillips hit Ellington late out of bounds. Later, Ellington had about a 60-yard return that was nullified by Marcus Cromartie’s holding penalty.
Hayne’s claim: Again, Hayne was impressive as a runner and return man. On a 12-yard gain in the third quarter, Chargers cornerback Lowell Rose was credited with a tackle. But it was Hayne who leveled Rose at the end of the play near the sideline.
Hayne appears to be ticketed for the 49ers’ 53-man roster. He finished the exhibition season as the 49ers’ leading rusher.
On Friday, he had 58 yards on 10 rushing attempts, caught two passes for 17 yards and averaged 14.3 yards on three punt returns. He also made a tackle on punt returner Javontee Herndon for a one-yard loss after beating a double-team as a gunner.
Hunter on bubble: Running back Kendall Hunter started and saw a lot of action in the first half. He carried 10 times for just 21 yards and caught three passes for 13 yards.
Hunter averaged 4.6 yards per rushing in the first three seasons of his NFL career before sustaining a torn ACL in training camp last summer. When he played last Saturday against the Denver Broncos, it was the first time Hunter had appeared in a game since the NFC Championship game in January 2014.
With a crowded group of backs that includes Hyde, Bush, rookie Mike Davis and Hayne, Hunter is on the bubble for a roster spot.
South Carolina connection: South Carolina teammates Thompson and tight end Busta Anderson combined for a 16-yard touchdown pass play in the fourth quarter for the 49ers. Anderson, a seventh-round draft pick, is on the bubble for the 49ers’ 53-man roster. If he does not make the cut, the 49ers will likely try to bring him back to their 10-player practice squad.
Thompson played the entire game and completed 17-of-25 attempts for 225 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
New grass on the way: Following the Luke Bryan concert at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, new sod was installed up to the 40-yard line for the exhibition finale. On Friday, the grass will be removed in order to install the sod that is expected to remain for the remainder of the season with some possible partial re-sodding between the hashmarks later in the year.
This ‘n’ that: The 49ers went with their No. 2 offensive line of left tackle Patrick Miller, left guard Andrew Tiller, center Joe Looney, right guard Brandon Thomas and right tackle Trent Brown. . . . Most of the 49ers’ defensive players got the night off, including starters NaVorro Bowman, Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey, Quinton Dial, Michael Wilhoite, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. . . Defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie, who is in a battle to win a roster spot, saw a lot of action standing up at outside linebacker. . . . Cornerback Tramaine Brock (hamstring), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (rib), tight end Vance McDonald (ankle) and wide receiver Torrey Smith (knee contusion) did not suit up due to injuries. . . Thompson’s second-quarter pass intended for DeAndrew White was intercepted by Chargers cornerback Richard Crawford and returned 29 yards for a touchdown. . . Cornerbacks Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker started the game. In the second quarer, Dontae Johnson and Shareece Wright entered the game. . . Phil Dawson missed a 50-yard field goal on the final play of the first half when his kick bounced off the left upright. . . After Tyrell Williams’ 63-yard touchdown pass from Brad Sorensen pulled the Chargers to within 14-12 in the fourth quarter, 49ers’ linebacker Philip Wheeler sacked Sorensen on the two-point conversion. Wheeler made his debut in the exhibition season after missing the first three games with a leg strain. . . . Cornerback Marcus Cromartie clinched the game with an interception with :54 remaining.
What’s next: The 49ers are expected to begin making cuts to the 53-player roster limit on Friday. The deadline for NFL teams to arrive at a maximum of 53 players is Saturday at 1 p.m. (PT).