Prodigy of spring wings into action

The prodigy of spring took his first snap as a 49er in team drills early Friday afternoon, stood straight and tall in the pocket, then sailed a spiral 45 yards downfield that found its destination in the waiting arms of Brandon Lloyd. Alex Smith didn't always look that pretty in his debut practice with the team that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft two weeks ago, but he was the indisputable buzz at the opening of the team's three-day minicamp, and the reasons why were obvious.

"He goes out there and makes plays," said receiver Arnaz Battle, who reeled in a few spirals himself from Smith during the team's first full-squad practice of 2005. "He definitely showed some sparks out there."

Sparks? That actually was electricity, crackling through the air with anticipation every time Smith entered the huddle or stepped behind center.

The 20-year-old rookie – he turns 21 on Saturday – represents the rebirth of the 49ers more than any of the other 70-plus players that took the field at team headquarters. That's just the way it is when you're the top pick of the draft, play quarterback, and are coming into a situation on a 2-14 team where the incumbent at the position isn't exactly inspiring confidence in anyone.

There were more cameras and microphones at an opening day of a 49ers minicamp than … perhaps ever. They were all there not to see the next gradual step in the progress of the Mike Nolan regime, or the other 10 rookies in the team's consequential Draft Class of 2005.

They were there to see Alex.

"That's fine with me," Smith said, unfazed. "Once you get on the field, you don't see anything else."

There were times early Friday when it seemed nobody was watching anything else but Smith. He was under the microscope, to be sure, not just from the media, but also from coaches and teammates alike.

This is one rookie quarterback who won't exactly be brought along slowly. Nolan and his coaching crew aren't going to rush Smith, but they are going to throw the playbook at him.

At one point, Nolan even admitted, "I'd like to bring him along quickly, to be honest with you. I'd like to see how much he can handle. I don't want to determine myself what he can and can't handle. I want him to determine what it is he can and can't handle. And by giving him a lot, we'll learn what it is."

Between the media attention and half the snaps with the first-team offense, Smith was handling plenty Saturday. Naturally, he didn't always handle it well.

His first snap during morning 11-on-11 drills was fumbled after Smith hit fullback Fred Beasley as he pulled back from center. There were a few times when he didn't know where to go with the ball as he adjusted to the speed of the pro athletes around him. Some of his throws were jumped on by defensive backs. Others sailed out of bounds intentionally after plays broke down.

But then there were the moments such as the throw to Lloyd, which Nolan termed as "a nice touch pass," even though it covered almost half a football field. There were other tight throws that found the hands of their intended target. There was athleticism, sound fundamentals, energy and a picking-it-up-as-he-goes poise.

And then there was this certain command of the huddle, which perhaps impressed Nolan the most.

"Certainly, to go out there today and do what he did with the first unit, for the first time out, that's a pretty good grasp on things," the coach said. "To get in the huddle, call the play, to call it right … When he was in the huddle, it came out quick and never came out wrong. I thought he commanded the thing pretty good. From the huddle presence, to the line of scrimmage, to calling it, to getting in the pocket and doing what he had to do, he did a good job."

Said Battle: "You can tell he's a very intelligent guy. He's a smart guy and he knows football. He's a student of the game and he has the ability to come out in the National Football League and compete. That's what you want from a QB, and that's why he was chosen No. 1. We've got high hopes for him. For his showing in his first practice, he did a good job and I'm looking for him to go out there and do more."

Count on that, Smith said. After all, he's only getting started.

"It's way early. It's May 6," he said. "(I) felt like a freshman again. I'm a rook now. You know, you're at the bottom of the totem pole. But it's exciting to reprove yourself. I'm just trying to pick it up as soon as possible.

"For myself, if I had to list my goals, it was to come out here, forget the throws, forget everything else, it was take command, show that you could be ready from a mature level, from the standpoint of stepping in the huddle and trying to take control. And that was the biggest thing for me, and obviously it won't be done in one practice. It's going to be this whole camp and continue on this spring and summer. But it's good to finally get out there. I'm just trying to get better and improve every day."


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