SANTA CLARA – Jarryd Hayne has been impressive with the ball in his hands since arriving on the scene with the 49ers.
But it’s how he has performed away from the ball that is the reason he is in line to be the 49ers’ No. 2 running back on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst confirmed Hayne will be Carlos Hyde’s primary backup on Sunday, if veteran Reggie Bush, as expected, is held out of action due to a calf injury.
Hayne served in the backup role on Monday because he was the only other running back on the active 46-man roster. Rookie running back Mike Davis, a fourth-round draft pick, was one of the 49ers’ seven inactive players in the 49ers' 20-3 victory season-opening victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
After muffing a punt for a turnover the first time he stepped onto the field Monday, Hayne rushed for 13 yards on four attempts with one reception for seven yards.
“Offensively, he settled down,” Chryst said. “He was executing and being himself and we didn’t back off of anything on the call sheet simply because it was Jarryd out there.”
The biggest reason Hayne has risen from the bottom of the 49ers’ depth chart as the only running back on the 90-man offseason roster without any experience in American football is because of the way he has handled his duties in pass protection.
On Monday, he took care of all three situations in which he was asked to remain in the backfield to block for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“He’s on top of it. He doesn’t miss blitzes,” Kaepernick said. “Everything he’s seeing, he’s seeing the same way that I am, the coaches are and the rest of the running backs are. It’s really a credit to his ability to pick up on things and learn a completely new thing.”
Hayne, 27, walked away from his status as the best player in Australia’s National Rugby League to attempt to play in the NFL. Pass protection and blitz pickup is an element of the game that often causes problems for young running backs making the transition from college football.
But, Hayne said, it has been a comfort zone for him.
“If you watch my old game, that was probably the one thing I was good at, reading body language,” Hayne said. “I was a playmaker in my old game. I’d dictate to people about the way they line up and I’d have to read their body language with the plays we’d run as well.
“For me, pass protection has probably been one of those things where I feel like I’ve adapted really well, just reading the blitzes and picking them. There are blitzes that are trickier than others, and I know I’m not perfect, but having Reggie and Carlos and Bruce Miller and Mike and Kendall Hunter, as well, that experience helps a lot.”
Said Chryst, “That’s been remarkable, his learning curve. He does not have a college system that he’s coming from. He’s coming from a totally different sport. We just felt like he was another 49er who was in there and was going to execute whatever it was we were going to call. I think that’s a real compliment to him.”
After Hayne took over as the backup running back, he did not line up deep on punt returns for the final 2 ½ quarters. Special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey suggested he wanted to stick with the hot hand after Bruce Ellington returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown – a play that was nullified by two penalties on the 49ers’ return unit.
When asked who will be handling punts on Sunday, McGaughey answered, “We’ll see.”