The San Francisco 49ers have a decision to make this weekend regarding the punt and kick return positions. Well, I should say, we will find out the decision the team has likely already made. They have Jarryd Hayne, Bruce Ellington and DeAndrew White all as potential options, giving them the deepest group of return men in some time.
On Thursday, special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey chatted with the media about the current situation. The first question was about who would handle return work, and McGaughey said the team has a lot of options and "we'll see." This is not remotely surprising, and I see no reason we will hear more before Sunday.
McGaughey weighed in on all three of his return men, and what they bring to the table. On Hayne, he talked about his learning as a general coverage guy. He talked about where Hayne ends up on kickoff coverage, saying it depends on body type. He went into some interesting detail about the inside stuff and the skills required for that.
In regard to Ellington, McGaughey said the two of them had extensive discussions about the need to keep his body right. Health is the one thing holding back Ellington from big-time playmaker potential. He could be an all-purpose option, with the ability returning, as well as working at receiver, and even potentially out of the backfield on occasion.
In talking about White, McGaughey pointed out that he actually leads the team as a punt returner. Hayne had more returns and more yards, but White finished with a better punt return average. White had four punt returns for 91 yards (22.8 yards per return), while Hayne had nine returns for 163 yards (18.1 yards per return). McGaughey talked about how both White and Hayne have a lot to learn, but obviously is pleased with their progression.
Here is a full transcript of McGaughey's press conference.
Who's going to be your return man on Monday night?
"Great question. No, we'll see. Guys have been working. We have a great group of guys to pick from, so we'll see."
Does that make the decision harder though, that you now have three guys who can do it?
"Absolutely. They're being evaluated every day. We love who we've got and we'll see who pops out."
What are the primary factors that you're considering right now when picking a candidate?
"Well, shoot there's a ton of them. Obviously, on Monday Night Football you want to have guys that you feel confident in and that can do the job and they've all shown that."
You realize Australians will declare a war if RB Jarryd Hayne doesn't get in the game?
"You know what, I'm aware of that. No, Jarryd's a heck-of-a player, very talented. A young player that needs to mature a little bit as far as just getting experience. But, he's going to be fine."
Speaking of experience, 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula talked about you have to do more than just being a punt returner. What do you see Jarryd Hayne's progress in terms of taking proper angles when he's on kickoff units and punt returns and so forth?
"That's one of those deals, that's a learning situation for him. Every experience is a new experience for him covering kicks because he's never done it before as far as being in the NFL. He's going to get better at it. It's my job, me and [assistant special team's] coach [Richard] Hightower as a special teams staff to get him better at it and we will. That's just something that he's going to have to learn."
He lined up in the middle on the kickoff coverage. This is maybe just a general question. How do you decide where to put somebody on kickoff coverage across that line?
"Body types, depending on the job. Jarryd can make people miss out in space so we put him inside. There's a lot of stuff coming at you so he's going to have to learn to read on the run. But, he has the ability to get to the ball, he has a nose for it just like a number of guys that we have. Putting him in the middle, be able to take on a wedge, be able to defeat a man block and get to the ball and kind of cover the whole field as opposed to just being on one side or the other."
WR Bruce Ellington, I think, is the only guy who returned punts last year and maybe the only guy who, other than RB Reggie Bush who's ever done it. When you look at Reggie who looked a little rusty in the game at Denver, WR DeAndrew White and Jarryd, how much do you have to really hone in on just decision making when you're back there?
"Oh, it's huge. I mean, obviously the ball is the most important thing and we want to make sure we take care of it. Decision making is huge and it's something that all those guys, Reggie obviously has the most experience at it, but moving forward those guys got to know that making those decisions inside the 10, being able to fair catch a ball when a guy is barreling down on you, those are things that you normally really get only in the game. You get a little bit in practice, but not so much. So, you've got to be able to kind of go through those experiences as you get in the game. We try as coaches to try and put them in those situations as much as possible, but it's kind of hard to simulate."
I have a question along those lines. I believe it was the second preseason game where Jarryd made an over-the-shoulder fingertip catch. Is that something that you want to see or in that kind of situation is it best for the guy just to let it go?
"In that situation right there, for Jarryd in the preseason, that's something that we wanted to see, him to be able to field the ball naturally and kind of make that kind of play. And that's not an easy play to make, obviously and he made it, kind made it look routine. But, we wanted to see that and he made that play. Now, obviously, during the game, running back in a real game in that situation, yeah we want to make that catch. Because, if they're out-kicking the coverage and that ball is going, it's going to hit and travel and roll. So, if it rolls that's another 15-20 yards of field position depending on where the ball is so we always want to save field position."
So you need, he needs to prove to you that he can make that catch, which he's done?
"Yeah, he's shown that."
Could we see different punt returners based on field position as the game progresses?
How much is, you know the three guys you've mentioned returning the kicks all did very well. How much is that to do with how well it was blocked up?
"I think it has a lot to do with it. If you look at, everybody is flying the Hayne Plane right now, but if you look at who led our team in punt returns in the preseason, it wasn't Jarryd Hayne. It was DeAndrew White. So, I think the guys up front and the vice outside, they've done a great job of blocking and understanding the concepts of what we're trying to do executing the fundamentals of the techniques of the scheme. And, I think they've kind of found a home there so now we're just trying to build upon that."
What's your assessment of DeAndrew White as a returner?
"I think he's a heck-of-a returner. He's a good young player that like Jarryd, he needs to mature a little bit as far as experience, get that experience. But, he's going to be a heck-of-a player."
Last time we talked, you said you needed to see more from WR Bruce Ellington, he hadn't been on the field enough. Now that he's been on the field, what's your assessment of Bruce?
"Bruce is a heck-of-a player. He's a good young player who's ascending. He needs to stay healthy and Bruce knows that. We've had extensive conversations and he just needs to take care of his body so he can be on the field and show us more of what he's shown that last preseason game and the things that, taking the ball 70 and hitting a good punt return up the sideline. Those are things that we see in practice that he has the ability to do, but he has to continue to do that and stay healthy at the same time."
Coach Tomsula actually said he sat him down, maybe you were there, and talked to Bruce and said this is what you need to do before practice, after practice, healing, recovery. Have you seen a big difference in him since those two chatted and just taking more responsibility for that?
"Well, and I don't mean to sound like a butt when I say this, but I don't watch him that closely. I know that he knows that those are things that he has to do. He has guys that are around him that do those types of things like [WR] Anquan Boldin, like a [RB] Reggie Bush that stretches an hour before practice. And, a guy like Anquan Boldin who gets out there 30 minutes before anybody else does and goes through his whole routine. So, he has those guys to watch and to follow. He just has to make sure as a young pro, I take the steps to get to where I need to be because those guys are double digits in this league. So, he has that in front of him to follow."
Since coming back from his foot injury or back into practice, how much has DB Jimmie Ward played on special teams and do you expect him to be an option on Monday?
"Oh, absolutely. Jimmie's done a great job. He's a heck-of-a player. Love his energy and his passion for the game. He wants to do everything right all the time and he's a fun kid to coach."
Has he been a gunner primarily?
"He's been a gunner. He's done a bunch of different things for us. I mean, we see him as being a core guy for us and doing a great job on defense and helping to contribute to this football team."
And WR DeAndrew as a gunner? It looked like he did some stuff pretty early in camp. How has he progressed in that area?
"He's done a good job. Again, he's young and there's some, there's certain things that he needs to learn about that position. He needs to learn how to be a little bit more physical and be more efficient with his movement. But, he's any other young player. He just needs to continue to develop."
It seems like there's a very real prospect that Jarryd might play on Monday night, would you say that? You guys seem to be downplaying it.
"It's, well, when you get so much of this, it kind of gets, we have to keep everything in perspective. He's a young player in this league. He's new. He's a rookie. Just because he's from 3,000 miles away or wherever he's from, he's still a rookie in this league. Most rookies, unless you're a top 10-15 pick in the draft, they don't get that much hype. So, we've got to kind of keep everything in perspective and understand the preseason is the preseason and right now is right now. This is real bullets flying. That was kind of paintball. This is real bullets. So, we've just kind of got to temper it all and take it all with a grain of salt and move forward. And, as the weeks go on and things start to progress, then we'll address it then. But, until then you just kind of, that's just me."
Just on that, on the flipside of that, even though he hasn't played the game before, have you guys looked at what he does naturally and thought, "Hey maybe that could work in our game?"
"Oh, absolutely. That's why he's here. He wouldn't be here if we didn't look at him and kind of assess that and evaluate it. Obviously, he has natural skills. But, like anything else, you're excited about him but he's still a rookie and you've still got to prove it on the field in the regular season."
But I mean, can you take some of his skills, what he has, and translate that and get your guys to look at what he's doing? Have you seen that?
"Yeah. I mean, he has that natural make you miss. He has those types of things that you naturally can't teach, the fearlessness, all of that stuff, absolutely. He has some great characteristics about him as a runner, as an open-field runner. But, there's still some small little nuances of the game that he needs to get better at and he knows that."
Are we going to see any lateral passes?
"Great question, I don't know. I wish I could give you that answer."
Your special teams guys have got to play a scrimmage position too. When you're making a choice about who to be active or not, how much does that play into it and who makes the final call?
"Well, obviously, all the personnel decisions run through the front office and obviously special teams is something that you definitely consider. It has to be. When you start talking about the bottom part of the roster, all of those guys are going to play on special teams. So, they have to be able to contribute in that fashion."
In terms of making a decision in a given game?
"Oh, absolutely, going in week-in and week-out."
Does it sometimes have to do with the game plan?
"Absolutely, it sure does."