The Saga of Jarryd Hayne Continues: Why He Should Remain a Practice Squad Player
It was a great story while it lasted. Before the fumbles and the inconsistencies, the story of former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne was one of the NFL’s feel-good stories of the year. Hayne was signed as a free agent last spring by the San Francisco 49ers who decided to take a chance on a 27-year-old who had only ever played rugby but held on to a dream of playing football in America someday.
Hayne was signed by the 49ers back in March and impressed the coaching staff and veteran players with his tremendous athletic ability. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Hayne appeared to have all the tools necessary to compete for a roster spot as the team went to training camp in July. Head coach Jim Tomsula saw something in the young Aussie and decided to keep Hayne when the final 53-man roster was set in early September.
After displaying some of what he was capable of in the preseason – five carries for 63 yards, two punt returns for 24 yards, and a kickoff return for 33 more in his debut against Houston – Hayne showed why he should have been a practice squad player all year.
In the 49ers first game of the season against Minnesota, a game that will go down as San Francisco’s biggest win all year, Hayne gained a total of 20 yards on the ground, but it was his special teams exploits that put him in the spotlight. In front of a national Monday Night Football audience, Hayne fumbled his first punt return. Tomsula and his staff kept Hayne on the roster specifically because of his ability as a punt and kick returner, but that fumble in Week 1 would prove to be just the brink of disaster.
Hayne would go on to fumble three times in six games before being waived by the team in late October. He was not claimed by another franchise and the 49ers decided to re-sign him to their practice squad where he has remained ever since.
The former rugby star has committed himself to learning the game of American football during his practice squad stint. Looking back, San Francisco should have had him on the practice squad all year. Special teams co-coordinator Thomas McGauhey said that Hayne needed to learn how to play football before he could contribute. He could have learned more by being a member of the practice squad. Instead, he was thrust into action long before he was ready.
Even Hayne himself admits that he has much to learn. “I feel 10 times more confident than I did six weeks ago when I was actually playing,” said Hayne. The six weeks on the practice squad has helped him become more familiar with the nuances of the game. Now, the 49ers are in a bind at the running back position and are considering moving Hayne to the active roster.
The running backs that San Francisco believed would carry them through the season – Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush, and Mike Davis – all suffered injuries that saw them miss significant time. Hyde and Bush are out for the season and Davis, who suffered a hand injury, may or may not be ready for the 49ers last three games.
Shaun Draughn, who had been contributing in the 49ers backfield is out with a knee injury and Kendell Gaskins, a former practice squad player like Hayne, may be San Francisco’s starter the final three weeks of the season. The 49ers also signed DuJuan Harris, a 5-7, 206-pounder who played two games with Seattle this year. The signing of Harris is probably an indication that San Francisco will keep Hayne on the practice squad where he belongs.
In the grand scheme of things, the 49ers would be best off keeping Hayne on the practice squad where he can continue to learn the game. San Francisco is 4-10 and in last place in the NFC West Division. They are 24th in the league in rushing, averaging 93.9 yards per game. Tomsula has used 10 different running backs to carry the football this season. Having an inexperienced running back who never even played the game until earlier this year is not going to do anyone any good.
The 49ers would be best off developing Hayne’s talent, much like they would with any other rookie. Most rookies do not make an immediate impact in the NFL. Of all rookie running backs in the NFL this year for example, only St. Louis RB Todd Gurley has been a consistent starter and his team’s workhorse running back. It is difficult enough to play in the league as a rookie after a standout college career much less trying to play as you learn the game. If San Francisco has any sense, they will keep Hayne on their practice squad and continue to develop him through the end of this season and into the next.