Not many remember that Paul Smith was atop the depth chart at tailback when the 49ers began training camp last month in Stockton. Garrison Hearst took care of that. So did a high right ankle sprain that forced Smith to miss San Francisco's first two exhibition games.

But now Smith is ready to make his splash in the backfield. He is practicing at full speed and will see his first preseason action Saturday when the Niners play the Seattle Seahawks at 3Com Park.

"I'm ready to go," Smith said Wednesday. "I've got my legs healed up. I think I'm back on pace as far as being full-speed and getting the timing down and everything."

Smith fell behind when he missed more than a week of twice-daily practices in Stockton. That allowed Hearst - attempting a comeback from a career-threatening ankle injury after a two-year layoff - to step to the forefront at the position.

Training camp began with coaches indicating Smith, Hearst and rookie Kevan Barlow would compete for the starting position. But Smith's name was tentatively listed first on the depth chart at the time. That distinction now belongs to Hearst.

"He's probably ahead of us as far as getting the starting role and having the whole offense thrown on his shoulders in the running game," Smith said. "He is, as of right now, the starting man."

Smith's audition for that role begins this week. With 72 yards rushing on 18 carries last year, he is the team's leading returning rusher at tailback.

"Coaches want to see me do everything - run, block and catch out of the backfield," Smith said. "I just have to keep doing what I have to do, keep working hard and show these coaches how much I want it."

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