Smith already getting early handle on No. 1 job

When the 49ers gathered for team drills midway through their first 2005 training camp practice Saturday afternoon, Alex Smith was behind center for the first play from scrimmage. The implications of that are obvious, but – in typical fashion – the 21-year-old rookie attempted to downplay the moment. "I don't think you need to read anything into it," Smith said. He's wrong. Observers should read into it deeply as Smith grabbed hold of the early lead in San Francisco's summer quarterback derby.

He may never give it up.

"The rook," as coach Mike Nolan likes to call him, looked big and strong and confident in the pocket as he set up to make throws for the first time wearing pads as a pro. He made good reads and continued to show a strong and increasingly accurate arm.

He let loose with an afternoon-long collection of pretty passes, so many that 12th-year veteran Johnnie Morton – after practicing with Smith for the first time – gushed, "He throws a great ball."

But even though everybody knows Smith is being groomed to become San Francisco's savior at quarterback sooner rather than later, the rook tried to play dumb to his prominence Saturday in the first-team huddle.

"I'm not looking to where I'm taking snaps or who I'm taking them with," Smith said. "It's just camp. I'm trying to earn my spot and trying to do the best I can. I'm just trying to learn. Obviously, I've still got a long way to go. It's just good to be back out there taking snaps."

Smith, however, continues to make steady strides, just like he did throughout spring drills after the 49ers made him the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft. His footwork and grasp of the offense have improved greatly, and he looks smooth as he drops back in the pocket and sets up to throw.

After playing in a college offense that featured mostly shotgun and option formations, it doesn't appear it's taking Smith very long to get his footwork up to par at the NFL level.

That kind of thing – let's face it – is what Nolan and the rest of the San Francisco coaches expect. And that's why Nolan is running Smith out there with the first-team offense for the first snap of training camp.

Get used to it, kid, if you're not already.

When asked about his quarterback rotation, which saw incumbent veteran starter Tim Rattay enter the fray after Smith, Nolan offered as an explanation that "it really doesn't mean anything," and that the team will "mix that up" with "a little bit of a rotating basis" to give Rattay and possibly others first-team, first-snap opportunities.

But when pressed regarding how it came about Smith took Saturday's first snap, Nolan didn't attempt to dance around the truth.

"In simple fact, as I said when we took the quarterback, we didn't take him to sit him on the bench," Nolan said. "At some point, he'll be the guy and I'd like to see if he can do it early. That's not to rule the other guys out, because it doesn't. It just says we're going to see. We're going to give him some reps and see how he progresses."

So far, so good.

Smith put some nice touch on his deep throws, and he was on the money with most of his short ones. One of his best throws of the day came at the end of practice when he fired an intermediate pass over the middle and hit Morton between the numbers amid four secondary defenders.

It's passes such as that which make Smith look like The Man already, even though some of his teammates still call him "kid."

"He looks good, just like he did in the (spring organized team activities)," said receiver Brandon Lloyd, who reeled in several passes from Smith as the afternoon progressed. "He's a great athlete, and he's dedicated to improvement. That's all we can pretty much ask of him, because we all want to improve and be better than the last outing, and that's what he continues to do."

Lloyd marveled at Smith's ability to take what he learns in meetings and execute it on the field, not to mention his ball placement and ability to throw on the run.

"The kid can take what he learned in the classroom, go into the huddle, call a play, and we'll go out and run a successful play," Lloyd said. "That's impressive for a rookie quarterback to do that. And he's able to place the ball. Instead of just winging it out there in the direction of the receiver, he's actually putting the ball on the outside number, on the inside number, high and low. He has that kind of control over the ball."

Said Morton, "The first thing you do as a receiver is look at how the quarterback throws. Is he going to throw it through you or throw it to you? And he throws a great ball. The thing about Alex is he's going to get more confident and his leadership will come out more and more as he learns the offense and becomes comfortable and (it becomes) second nature for him. He already understands it pretty well. Once you get it, and you feel comfortable, that's when you start playing. And that's when you'll see the real Alex Smith."

The Alex Smith on display Saturday didn't look too bad, either.

"I'm just trying to get better every day and do as best I can to reach my potential," Smith said. "Obviously, that's where I'm trying to get. I'm more confident, but I'm still getting there. I think that only comes with comfort, and I'm only going to be more comfortable the more I learn."

After the way Smith handled himself Saturday, the 49ers already appear more comfortable with the idea of him in the starting role, which now is looking more like a plan rather than just some whimsical summer hope.

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