Dorsey's deliverance day?

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: The new-and-improved Ken Dorsey matching his quarterback skills against front-line NFL players. It's just a preseason opener, to be sure, but everybody's eager to see how Dorsey will perform in the spotlight of his first pro start Saturday against Oakland. One thing's for sure: He's ready. But how he'll handle the big stage is another question entirely. Will it bring out the best in him, as some expect? Or is Dorsey's day still many games away?

It's time to find out. Dorsey has been teasing us with his tantalizing combination of potential, poise and promising skills. In his three months as the team's No. 1 quarterback, he has progressed from a hopeful project into a viable product. It's time to see what the big kid with the level head can do against some of the big boys who will be occupying defensive elevens come Sundays in September.

"I'm definitely at the point where I think I need to be right now," Dorsey said, his confidence unwavering. "I just want to get out there and compete against the top guys."

He has yet to really do this, of course. Dorsey did not play in the regular season last year as a rookie while sitting and learning behind Tim Rattay and Jeff Garcia. And the glimpses of ability he displayed last year in the preseason came mostly against bottom-of-the-depth-chart reserves in the latter stages of exhibitions.

It's the real thing now, or as close as you can get to it in mid-August. Dorsey will be playing with and against first-teamers for the first time. He has had plenty of practice for that first part, taking most of the snaps with San Francisco's first-team offense since mid-May after Rattay went down with a groin injury that required surgery.

Dorsey certainly has had his moments, but he hasn't always looked like the second coming of Joe Montana, or even the second coming of Steve Bono, for that matter. He has been inconsistent throwing the ball in training camp, wobbling passes and misfiring them on more than just occasional occasions.

But he never has let them or any other mistakes bother him. He just gets right back in the huddle and delivers a pretty, on-the-money spiral the next play.

"Everybody knows Rome wasn't built in a day, but they continued to make progress, and I feel like that is the way I've been," Dorsey said. "I feel like I just continue making progress, learning from my mistakes, and not getting too down on myself when you have a bad day or anything like that, because you are going to make mistakes and that is part of playing this position."

Add practical thinking and realism to Dorsey's many attributes. He's not looking to set the world on fire - Rome, of course, once burned in a day - even though many of his ardent supporters are expecting to see that kind of thing from the get-go.

But there's no denying this guy has a chance. The smart money still is on Rattay to be San Francisco's starting quarterback when the season opens, but if Dorsey handles himself and shows some of the things he has been displaying in practice for months - and he should get practically an entire first half Saturday to do it - he'll further solidify his status as the heir apparent for the future and a guy who can push Rattay for the job both then and now.

"It's going to be a great learning experience," Dorsey said. "When the competition goes up, you've got to be willing to go out there and do whatever it takes to help your team win. I'm very excited for that opportunity. I've worked hard to become better physically, mentally and everything like that. It's definitely a long process, but I'm excited about that. I think these preseason games are going to help me out tremendously because I need that experience in a game."

Dorsey's game experience so far has been limited to reserve action in four exhibitions last year. But even in those games, he displayed promising flashes. He led the Niners with three touchdown passes in the preseason last year, and also led the team on a 71-yard drive to the winning touchdown in the final minutes of San Francisco's 14-10 victory over the Raiders exactly a year ago Saturday.

He has come a long way since then.

"I like where Ken's at," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's getting better and better and has improved all the time. He understands what's going on and has been practicing really well. He's a winner and he believes in what he's doing. But you can get to a certain point and then you've got to get into game situations. That's what's going to take him to the next level."

The next level arrives Saturday. Is Dorsey ready to take his game there, as he so often has exhibited in practice? Check in about 5 p.m. at Candlestick Park in San Francisco for the first definitive answers.

"I have total faith and confidence in him," left tackle Kwame Harris said. "I love watching Ken out there in practice, I love watching him on film. So I'm really anxious to see what's going to happen when the bullets are live."

Get in line, Kwame. You most certainly aren't the only one.

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