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Former rugby star Hayne embracing 49ers’ practice squad

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  • San Francisco 49ers’ Jarryd Hayne walked across a practice field on his way to a news conference after facing the Denver Broncos in a scrimmage at the Broncos’ headquarters on Aug. 27 in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. » The 49ers thought so highly of former Australian rugby league star Jarryd Hayne that he was their opening night punt returner despite playing football for just over seven months.

But after three fumbles on punt returns, including his first ever attempt in the season opener, Hayne now finds himself on the practice squad.

“He needs to learn how to play football,” said Thomas McGaughey Jr., the 49ers’ first-year special teams coach. “To learn how to run and cover kicks and protect punts. That kind of stuff, that’s going to be invaluable for him with his overall skill development.”

Hayne was released on Halloween after appearing in six games before clearing waivers and signing to the practice squad two days later. He broke camp as the team’s punt returner after averaging over 18 yards on returns in the preseason thanks to his quick feet and elusiveness in the open field.

“If I could come this far in seven months, just five me 12 or 14,” Hayne said.

With his preseason performance, Hayne became one of Australia’s biggest sports stories after converting from the National Rugby League’s Parramatta Eels, where he was one of the country’s biggest stars.

Hayne exceeded his initial goal by making the 49ers’ roster for Week 1. He was disappointed about his demotion, but is embracing his opportunity on the practice squad, where he’s received more practice reps than he did as the fourth-string running back.

“It’s definitely been a great year. I overachieved what I ever expected,” Hayne said. “I think what people don’t realize that every day for me is like a month to everyone else because of the way I pick things up and the way I learn.

“I just feel like in these short six weeks that I’ve been on the practice squad, I learned so much. There was two weeks where I literally took every single rep in the look-card squad. That was huge. The most reps I took in a row (before that) was probably three or four.”

Hayne fumbled his first attempt at a punt return in the team’s Week 1 win over the Vikings, and then again against Green Bay in Week 4 and the Ravens in Week 6.

“He just needs to learn the game from the inside and out,” said McGaughey.

The 49ers dealt with injuries to their top three running backs, losing Carlos Hyde to a stress fracture in his left foot and Reggie Bush to knee surgery for the season. Rookie Mike Davis was placed on injured reserve with the return designation after surgery to repair a fracture in his hand.

All the while, San Francisco passed over chances to bring Hayne back to the active roster, instead opting for Shaun Draughn and Travaris Cadet, who were free agents after being released by the Browns and Patriots, respectively.

“I’m starting to realize when to play slow and when to play fast,” Hayne said. “That’s what the best do.”

NOTES: G Alex Boone (knee) and LB Michael Wilhoite (ankle) were ruled out of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. … CB Tramaine Brock (hamstring), LB Aaron Lynch (concussion) and WR Torrey Smith (back, ankle) are listed as questionable. Smith has appeared in 76 straight regular season games.

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