SANTA CLARA – In American football, it’s called a stiff arm. And it’s something 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne can already do with the best of them.
In his former life as a star in the Australia National Rugby League, Hayne used the “fend” or “palm” as a way to elude tacklers. On Saturday in his NFL exhibition debut, he showed his lateral quickness, coupled with his upper-body strength, to demonstrate he is not an easy man to tackle.
Hayne, 27, has a lot of positives going for him as he battles for a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster. But he still has a long way to go, too.
“You got to be realistic here. It was the first preseason game,” 49ers special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “It’s not like we’re playing Week 8, going down the stretch. He’s got a long way to go. He’s doing some good things, and hopefully he’ll continue down that path.”
The most promising path for Hayne appears to be in the return game, where he looks like a natural. He had a 53-yard run from scrimmage on an outside zone run. But there are a lot of nuances in which he must improve. Coaches want to see him become more decisive running in tight quarters.
“Being a running back, you just want to not lose yards and you want to make as many yards as fast as you can,” Hayne said. “But sometimes you need to be patient and wait for the holes.
“Obviously, I’m far away from being a crisp running back. And returning punts and kickoffs is the thing I’m most natural at. For me, I have to work on my whole game.”
Hayne handled two punts and did not appear tempted to call for a fair catch. He also took a kickoff seven yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the 26-yard line.
When suggested that Hayne might have an aversion to calling for fair catches, McGaughey responded, “That’s a good assessment.”
And it’s something the coach likes about Hayne.
“You obviously want to make smart decisions, but Jarryd’s fearless,” McGaughey said. “That’s one of the characteristics it takes to be a great punt returner.
“It’s fun when you see a guy who can make the first guy miss and he’s not scared. (He’s) very, very comfortable fielding the ball. When you have that fearlessness, it gives you an edge.”
Hayne appeared confident returning punts and kickoffs, and he also delivered stiff arms against A.J. Bouye, Steve Brown and rookie Bernardrick McKinney. But the most impressive part of his game Saturday in Houston was his ability to make the first tackler miss due to his quick side-step.
“He has great lateral quickness,” McGaughey said. “That’s another characteristic of a great open-field runner. If you look at all the great open-field runner they all have that characters -- Dante Hall, Devin Hester -- those types of runners guys who can make you miss. . . Darren Sproles. . . They have great lateral quickness and Jarryd possesses great lateral quickness.”