Jarryd Hayne got a taste of the ultra-secretive NFL Saturday when the 1 p.m. deadline for making roster cuts rolled around and he still hadn’t heard a peep about whether he had made the 49ers’ final squad.
For the first time since the process of moving to a new continent and tackling a different sport began last year, Hayne said, he got nervous.
“Probably the last 10 minutes, it was like, what’s going on? Do I get a phone call? Is someone going to tell me that I got a job or what?” said Hayne, who was born outside of Sydney and rose to stardom in Australia’s National Rugby League.
As it turned out, Hayne got a text from coach Jim Tomsula. The message: “Welcome to the starting line; it’s a long race.”
Hayne, 27, made the team’s initial 53-man roster, a remarkable achievement considering that only months earlier he was being taught basics such as how to properly put on American football pads and how to lower his profile to face oncoming tacklers.
Hayne’s learning process was one of the better story lines of the NFL preseason, and it was colossal news in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, where his father, who also played rugby league, was born. Hayne’s every move with the 49ers was documented, analyzed and became one of the top-read stories of Australia’s daily news cycle.
That he made the final cut wasn’t exactly a surprise.
He was the 49ers’ most dynamic return man and finished second in the NFL in rushing during the preseason, averaging seven yards every time he carried the ball. He also appeared on special-teams coverage units in Thursday’s finale – he made an impressive tackle as a gunner – which likely cemented his value to the team.
Hayne was one of several feel-good items as the 49ers announced a final roster, which could change as other teams’ castoffs are analyzed and added. Other who made the first cut:
▪ Wide receiver DeAndrew White. The undrafted rookie wideout suffered injuries at Alabama and was overshadowed by teammate Amari Cooper, who now plays receiver up the road with the Raiders. But White stayed healthy throughout the offseason and was consistently one of the 49ers’ best young wideouts on the practice field.
▪ Nose tackle Mike Purcell. He spent last season on the 49ers’ practice squad but, like Hayne, made the most of his preseason snaps. Purcell’s performance was punctuated by a 37-yard touchdown after intercepting a Cowboys quarterback in the second contest.
▪ Linebacker Shayne Skov. Like teammate NaVorro Bowman, he overcame a multi-ligament knee injury and seemed to regain the form he showed early on during his stay at Stanford. Skov’s performance likely prompted the 49ers’ only surprising cut of the afternoon, inside linebacker Nick Moody, a draft pick in 2013.
“Yeah, that was a tough decision,” Tomsula said. “Nick Moody has busted his tail. It’s just where that worked out numbers-wise.”
The 49ers kept four inside linebackers: Bowman, Michael Wilhoite, Skov and Nick Bellore, who excels on special teams and who played for special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. when they were with the Jets last year.
As for Hayne, Tomsula called it a “tremendous achievement.”
“But I think it’s also why everybody is so enamored with it,” he said. “It’s the true story, the American way or the Australian way – work hard, keep driven and you’ve made it.”
Still, the 49ers coach stuck to the cloak-and-dagger approach as far as the Aussie’s role on game day – does Hayne or Reggie Bush return punts? – or even whether he’d be one of the 46 players who suits up. Instead he repeated the theme that Hayne is only at the beginning of the process, something Hayne reiterated when he spoke with reporters.
He said he spent the day along the San Francisco waterfront with his family, who flew to watch him in Thursday’s game.
“We all know the (regular) season is a whole different kettle of fish,” he said. “… It’s a new beginning again.”
In Monday’s Bee
Are you a 49ers fan, Raiders fan or both? Check out our season previews in Monday’s expanded sports section.