SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers’ blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers provided the coaching staff with an opportunity get significant playing time for a couple of their inexperienced players.
Two young rookies from the SEC making their NFL regular-season debuts got extended playing time at the expense of 27-year-old rookie Jarryd Hayne, who was suiting up for just his sixth career game of American football after leaving Australia as a star in the National Rugby League.
Wide receiver DeAndrew White took over on punt returns, and running back Mike Davis saw 41 snaps of action after Carlos Hyde left the game in the third quarter. Hayne had two carries for three yards on four snaps of offense in the first half. And on two special-teams plays, Hayne had a fair catch and a seven-yard punt return.
When asked why White took over for Hayne to return a punt in the second half, 49ers special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said, “DeAndrew deserved that, to be honest with you. . . DeAndrew led our team in punt return in the preseason. He had over 20-yards per return. So, I mean, I think he earned that right to be out there on the field.”
White also handled kickoff chores with Bruce Ellington out of action with an ankle sprain. White fielded his first kickoff eight yards deep in the end zone and managed to get out to only the 13-yard line.
“He better be decisive about bringing it out eight-yards deep and not kind of wavering about it,” McGaughey said. “That’s the one thing that he has to. He was limited in doing it in college.”
McGaughey said his kick returners are instructed to return the ball out of the end zone if the kick is more of a line drive.
“It really depends on the hang time of the kicker,” McGaughey said. “There’s some guys that will kick you a 3.7-3.6 (seconds) ball, just trying to drive it out of the back of the end zone and those are the ones that you want to bring out as opposed to the one that’s 4.2-4.3, hanging up in the air.
“Those are the ones you want to take a knee on because by the time you catch it and cross the goal line, normally the coverage team, most of the good coverage teams in this league, they are crossing the 20, crossing the 15. So you’re almost dead in the water that way.”
White’s kickoff return had a hang time in the 4.2-second range, plus he hesitated slightly before bringing it out of the end zone.
“I wish he could have been a little bit more productive and I’ve had these conversations with DeAndrew,” McGaughey said. “He has to take advantage of those opportunities when he gets them. He has to be more decisive as a returner back there. And, like we talked about before with these young players, there’s a maturation process that they have to go through. They’ve got to touch that hot stove and bump their knee, bump their head on the concrete sometimes and realize that it’s hard.”
White had just five kickoff returns and two punt returns in four seasons at Alabama. The undrafted rookie returned his one punt for four yards against the Steelers.
On offense, although Hayne was the first running back to enter the game to give Hyde a breather in the first half, Davis exclusively filled that role after halftime. Coach Jim Tomsula said he made the decision to get Davis onto the field for his NFL debut.
“That was me,” Tomsula said. “I mean, I wanted him playing. We think Michael Davis is a good running back. Just quite honestly, Jarryd Hayne does more on special teams and different areas for us than Michael. But Michael had an opportunity up. We think he’s a good running back, young running back. We’re going to hand him the football and let’s get going here.”
Davis, a fourth-round draft pick from South Carolina, rushed for just 14 yards on seven carries. He also caught two passes for four yards.