Smith gritted out last season on broken leg

One thing the 49ers don't have to worry about by taking a first-round flyer on Aldon Smith is the youngster's toughness. This is a guy that broke his right leg during the third game of his sophomore season at the University of Missouri last year, then returned to the lineup exactly 36 days later to help his team remain undefeated during its 7-0 start and finish the season on his still-broken limb.

Smith, after bursting onto the scene in 2009 while setting Big Twelve Conference freshman records for sacks (11.5) and tackles for a loss (19), fractured his right fibula during Missouri's 27-24 victory over San Diego State on September 18.

This is an injury that could keep a player out up to two months, perhaps even destroy the rest of his season. But not Smith, whom the 49ers selected with the No 7 overall pick of the draft Thursday.

In something of a remarkable return, Smith was back on the field at his starting defensive end position for Missouri's Oct 23 showdown with Oklahoma. Despite playing in pain and with a limp, he could get around well enough to record his only interception of the season and return it 58 yards.

Most observers agree Smith probably came back too soon from his injury, and it was a risky proposition for the then 20-year-old since he planned on entering the NFL draft a few months later. But those factors didn't stop or even deter Smith.

"I actually came back and it was still broken," Smith said Thursday. "It was tough playing with it, but I love my teammates, I love the game and nothing is going to stop me from playing. If I could go out there enough, if I could walk a little bit, then I'll be able to play a game on it."

Smith ended up playing Missouri's final seven games on it, gritting out the injury to finish strong while earning first-team All-Big Twelve honors and being named Missouri's defensive lineman of the year for the second consecutive season.

Smith wasn't concerned about how playing with the injury would affect his draft status, but it obviously did him little harm as he was the fourth defender selected in the entire draft.

"I think it let people know that I had heart and that I love the game and that I'm not a wimp, that I'm a tough guy," Smith said.

It was one of the many qualities that impressed the 49ers about their new youngest player.

"That struck a chord with me," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I know usually bones take four to six weeks to heal. You could tell he was playing on it, limping at times. There's a toughness aspect there both mentally and physically that I was impressed with. He's not afraid to go into a pile of bodies headfirst and make the tackle. A lot of things that show up with him are character toughness things that you see on film."

Despite missing three games to injury, Smith finished with 5.5 sacks to finish his Missouri career sixth among the school's all-time leaders in sacks (17) despite playing in only 23 games with the Tigers. He may have limped to the finish as a collegian, but it did nothing to hurt Smith's climb up draft boards this spring, all the way to No. 7 where the 49ers decided they simply could not pass by this athletic prospect.

"I think you have to appreciate the players that have a little bit of a warrior mentality," Niners general manager Trent Baalke said. "This is a tough game, a physical game. When you have a guy that's willing to go out there, knowing he's probably going to come out (in the draft) as a junior and still battle through it, and get himself back on the field, that does show you something about his character and his will."

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