- Hayne hits back at critics after solid showing
- Hayne resurrects NFL career with first start for 49ers
- As it happened: Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers
Detroit: Jarryd Hayne popped out of the San Francisco 49ers backfield in the second half on Sunday and realised there wasn't a Detroit Lions defender within 10 metres of him. It was the type of open-field situation in which Hayne excelled in the pre-season, and the running back signalled how open he was.
Jarryd Hayne makes strong return to NFL
After almost two months in the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad, Jarryd Hayne was a shining light as the surprise starting running back.
The quarterback wasn't looking.
Blaine Gabbert instead fired a pass to his left, leaving Hayne hopping up and down in frustration on the other side of the field.
The former league star had opportunities during his first NFL start, a 32-17 loss to the Lions. But his runs - nine of them - came in close-quarter situations and his five catches were short ones with Detroit defenders draped all over him.
The most critical reception came in the fourth quarter with the 49ers facing a 4th-and-3 scenario and trailing by 12 points. Gabbert fired a quick pass to Hayne who was tackled a few inches short of the first-down marker.
Afterward, coach Jim Tomsula said Hayne needed to do a better job of running that route so that he catches the ball closer to the first-down line.
"He's got to run that route to the sticks," he said. "It's just what has to happen."
Gabbert and Hayne, however, had different takes.
"It was going to be a bang-bang play," Gabbert said. "Their linebacker did a good job of shutting of the shallow cross, and we knew it would be close. But it's a game of inches and we fell short."
Hayne said the same thing - that the Lions linebacker cut off his route, making sure the running back couldn't get deeper downfield.
Despite that play it was a solid outing for Hayne - a surprise starter just one day after being elevated from the 49ers practice squad. His first carry - on the second snap of the game - went for four yards. On the next one, he broke two tackles for 11 yards, his longest run this season.
Hayne began the year as the team's primary punt returner. He was demoted in October after flubbing a handful of opportunities, including in the prime-time opener against Minnesota.
The 49ers also were hesitant to use him as a running back despite a spate of injuries at the position. They released him on October 31 and two days later signed him to the practice squad.
That he started Sunday's game - ahead of newcomer DuJuan Harris and short-yardage specialist Kendall Gaskins - underscores how far he's come since October.
Hayne said he had "a bit of an idea" he might start the contest because the regular starter, Shaun Draughn, was out with a knee injury.
However, he said he wasn't told for sure until pre-game warm-ups. The 49ers had announced to the media that either Harris or Gaskins would start the game, which led to a bit of a double-take from observers when Hayne jogged onto the field following the opening kickoff.
Hayne has played a number of positions - including safety and wide receiver - while on the practice squad, and he said that experience has allowed him to learn his new sport more quickly.
"That's been huge for me to be able to get that experience," he said. "It's invaluable because I've, obviously, got so much to catch up on, and I think today I felt great out there. There are one of two things that I could have done better. But overall I was happy."
Hayne has said he plans to return to Australia next month and will remain there for the start of NRL season. But he insists he'll only be an observer and that he's eager to continue his NFL education when the off-season begins.
If he remains on the 49ers active roster for the team's Sunday finale against the St. Louis Rams, they will hold his rights for the 2016 season.
Matt Barrows is the Sacramento Bee's 49ers beat reporter.