How soon will Smith start?

A week from today, the 49ers will convene at their Santa Clara headquarters for the first mandatory full-squad minicamp of the Mike Nolan era, and there's a striking possibility it could be Alex Smith emerging from the first-team huddle to take the team's first offensive snap. Nolan said Tim Rattay's status still is iffy to take part in the three-day practice session, but Smith will be there in a blaze of glory and hoping to make a strong first impression on his new teammates and coaches.

There has been a lot of talk about bringing along the precocious, 20-year-old Smith slowly and not pushing him into the lineup, but there's another popular theory of thought that has the No. 1 overall pick in the draft taking advantage of an early opportunity and taking control of the position from Day 1 of the team's first full-squad practice.

Rattay, the incumbent starter, missed the team's spring minicamp for returning starters at the beginning of April with a minor problem in his right foot that resulted during his rehabilitation from December surgery for plantar fasciaitis.

A muscle became inflamed near where surgeons had made an incision to correct the problem, and Rattay said on April 2 that he'd rest the foot and be "ready to go in another week or so."

But three weeks later, Rattay still is having complications with the foot that could prevent him from taking part in next week's activities. Nolan said he is unsure if Rattay will be able to participate, and Rattay himself said he must test the foot this week to get a better idea if he will be ready to go next Friday – a year to the day when Rattay's nightmare of injuries began.

It was at last year's May minicamp opener that Rattay tore a groin muscle clean off the bone as he attempted a routine rollout during the team's first spring practice. That began a downward slide for Rattay in which he ultimately suffered five significant injuries that would hinder both the progress of him and the team, leading to a 2-14 record and a set of circumstances that led to the team taking Smith with the top pick of the draft.

Rattay has been a regular at 49ers headquarters during the team's offseason activities, and he has spent his afternoons rehabilitating with a San Francisco physical therapist. But he has been unable to participate in workouts or the team's ongoing quarterback school because of his foot problems.

So, if you're Nolan – and Rattay's not ready next week – who do you send out with the first-team offense, Smith, Ken Dorsey, or Cody Pickett?

Dorsey and Pickett – the Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks on the depth chart last year behind Rattay – were unimpressive while taking the first-team snaps in place of Rattay earlier this month.

The 49ers were going to take a quarterback anyway with the No. 1 pick – either Smith or Cal's Aaron Rodgers – but the sketchy performance of both young backups sealed the deal.

Obviously, Smith is the team's future at the position, and the team expects him to be the starter at some point during the 2005 season – perhaps even the starting point of the schedule.

The question is how soon the future will arrive. Will it be as soon as Friday?

When asked if he expected to come in and start immediately, Smith responded as he usually does, taking the full context of the question into consideration.

"You know what, if I had it my way, I would," he responded. "But I think when and where, it's going to depend on a lot of things. First of all, me and how I adapt and how I take the coaching and how fast I learn the system and how fast I develop. I think coach Nolan is smart. He's not going to throw me into the fire when it's a bad situation for me. He's going to get me in at the right time and really let me grow."

Minicamp isn't exactly "the fire." And as Smith lugged around the team's thick playbook at his introductory news conference last Sunday, he talked about spending time cramming at the team facility and getting up to speed on that playbook so he'll be ready to implement it on the field next weekend. And that talk took into consideration that he has yet to sign what will be a blockbuster contract, a deal that certainly won't be in place by next week. Smith said he's taking part in the minicamp regardless of contract circumstances.

Nolan isn't handing Smith the starting role, saying he expects Smith to earn both it and the multiple millions the team will pay him, but he wants the kid taking over as soon as possible, which means as soon as he is ready.

So why not send him out with the first team next week? Everybody knows it won't be long before Smith is there to stay.

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