As 2015 yields to a new year, Jarryd Hayne held court with reporters one final time on Thursday to reflect on his experimental journey that captured the attention of two continents.
And while the rookie Australian running back expressed pride in all that he’s accomplished in the last 12 months, he appeared most happy when discussing what is still to come.
“There’s a whole bunch of things I’ve improved on, and over time, I’m going to get better,” Hayne said. “I’m excited for the future, because I’m still learning and still developing.
“I had never played the game before. There was always going to be something here that I didn’t expect. And it’s been a whole bunch of things that I’ve learned, had fun with and it’s been a great adventure.”
Hayne, a two-time MVP of the National Rugby League in Australia, began his NFL dream on March 3 when he signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers. He reportedly also had interest from the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
At least initially, most people around the team expected Hayne to spend his first season learning the intricacies of professional football – just as British Olympian-turned-defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye did before him. But a headline-grabbing preseason earned Hayne a surprise spot on the team’s 53-man roster at the start of the regular season.
“For Jarryd, who didn’t play college football or high school football, to come in and play at the top level, it’s really quite a remarkable story,” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. “But Jarryd is an elite athlete, and he wants to touch the ball. He doesn’t back away or have to ease into the game; he’s excited to be out there making plays.”
Hayne returned punts for the 49ers in the first six games of the year, averaging 9.5 yards per touch. He also ran the ball eight times for 25 yards and caught one pass for seven yards.
It was during this stretch that Hayne delivered his most memorable moment of 2015. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3, the Aussie broke off a 37-yard punt return and just missed a chance at a touchdown when he lost his balance while trying to break a tackle near the sideline.
“That would’ve been great if I would’ve taken it to the house, but I got cut short there,” Hayne said. “There were definitely a lot of highlights and a lot of things I can look back on and try to get better.”
The 49ers cut Hayne on Halloween to clear a roster spot for fellow running back Kendall Gaskins. But after clearing waivers, San Francisco brought him back a few days later as a practice squad member.
Hayne spent the next two months working behind the scenes and studying how the game is played from all angles. He even got reps as a linebacker and safety on the scout team.
The hard work paid off when the 49ers promoted Hayne back to the active roster a week ago in time for the team’s Week 16 contest against the Lions. Hayne ended up receiving his first career start and totaled 47 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches.
“You just take each day as it comes, prepare well and the rest takes care of itself,” Hayne said. “Every game I get better and every week I learn more and more. It’s about making things more crisp and perfecting what I’m doing.”
In San Francisco’s upcoming season finale on Sunday versus the St. Louis Rams, Hayne figures to again garner touches out of the backfield. He can thank his durability for that, as the 27-year-old has managed to stay healthy in his first NFL campaign. The only other two active running backs currently on the roster are Gaskins and DuJuan Harris.
“My body feels well,” Hayne said. “I’ve gotten in a head-on contact, so the next day my neck was really sore. That was probably the biggest. I’ve definitely felt the physical side of it on the weekends, but it is what it is.”
Once the 49ers break for the offseason, Hayne plans to fly home Down Under to spend time with his friends and family and, of course, drink the coffee that he has frequently missed while living in the states.
“I could be in the hospital overdosing on caffeine,” Hayne said, smiling. “It’s been a long time. I’m definitely looking forward to the warm weather and the ocean.”
Hayne added that he isn’t sure what 2016 will bring for him. But with this marking his first full offseason as an NFL player, Hayne has his sights set high. And the 49ers, who own Hayne’s rights for the next two seasons, have similar expectations.
“He’s got a great upside,” Chryst said. “He can run, he’s big and he’s hard to block. As he works on fielding punts, he’s going to be a really exciting player to watch moving forward.”