Smiley's starting push

The competition for the 49ers' starting position at right guard will go down to the wire this summer, and may the best man win. Justin Smiley believes he's the best man. The athletic and ornery rookie from Alabama will be on the sidelines again Saturday while third-year veteran Kyle Kosier starts at right guard against Chicago, but that could be just a transitory condition that some believe won't carry into the regular season. And, Smiley says, "once I get a hold of it, I won't relinquish it."

Smiley doesn't have a hold on it now basically because the team isn't going to announce a change at the position until it has to. For now, the 49ers are fine with keeping Kosier – who started last week's preseason opener against Oakland – with the first unit while bringing Smiley along gradually during the summer.

After all, Smiley still is just 22, and he would be preparing for his senior season at Alabama right now if he hadn't come out early after his tremendous junior year. Instead, he is preparing for NFL war in the trenches, and that's a big adjustment, even for a stud like Smiley.

But Smiley says his biggest adjustment simply has been getting used to not working with the first unit from the get-go.

"The biggest adjustment for me," Smiley told SFI, "is being No. 1 everywhere I've ever been to coming here and having your back against the wall a little bit, and never really knowing how to handle that because you've never had to before. That's kind of been my struggle, you know what I'm saying? That's what's just been killing me. I don't like being second team. It kind of makes me feel not adequate."

But Smiley's far from that. He's a runaway bulldozer on running plays, and he displayed that ability in the exhibition opener when he pulled on a running play and cleared out a path for halfback Terry Jackson to scamper into the end zone on a seven-yard run that was San Francisco's only rushing touchdown in a 33-30 loss.

Smiley has great quickness and athleticism to go with the formidable 301 pounds he packs on his 6-foot-3 frame. That's why, despite playing just three years in college, he was the second guard taken in the April draft and lasted only until the No. 46 overall pick before he was snatched by the Niners.

"I feel like they kind of utilized my athleticism (last week)," Smiley said. "That's one of my strong points. One of the things I did really good was twirl in and roll up on some linebackers. But we're going to have to pass the ball, too."

And there lies the rub. Smiley probably already would be penciled in as the starter if he had the Niners' intricate blocking schemes and technique down already. But that kind of thing only comes with time at the NFL level.

"You're already behind the eight-ball there, man," Smiley said. "I've already got all that stacked against me. Because you have to go to the line and think about what you're doing. When it starts coming instinctively, that's when it starts happening for you, because you don't have time to think out there. It's too fast."

But, Smiley added, "Physically, I'm ready. I do just as good as anybody else there. But this offense is new to me. From a technical standpoint, I'm starting to pick things up. Once I get all that stuff behind me, man, the sky's the limit."

Coach Dennis Erickson agrees.

"Athletically, he does the right things and is doing some good things," Erickson said. "The level of the game and how he played it is really there. Justin has continued to improve. He's getting a lot better. It's just a learning thing with him now. It's more technique than anything. He played at Alabama, where they didn't pass protect a whole lot, and he's getting better at that. He just has to continue to get better like a lot of these guys."

Kosier is reliable and steady, but it already appears his only advantage over Smiley is experience. That's not a knock on Kosier – he's solid. But, even though he started at right guard, Kosier saw more time last Saturday playing both left and right tackle. He's the Niners' top backup at both positions, and also would be the top backup at both guard positions if Smiley were to start.

Kosier started 12 games at three positions along the offensive line last year, and that kind of versatile jack-of-all-trades role is what the team appears to ultimately have targeted for him this year as it grooms Smiley for the starting role.

"Kyle's a heck of a player, he's a great player, and it's not a give-me, that's for sure," Smiley said. "They're pitting us against each other right now because that makes both me and him better and that makes the team better. Not many rookies come into the league starting on the offensive line, so I have to earn my stripes and prove what I can do.

"So if I do start (the season opener), it's a plus. But if (I'm) not starting the first game, I know it will happen sometime this season."

And most likely sooner rather than later.


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