No Niners' surprise: Smith named starter

It was status quo Wednesday at 49ers training camp. Which is to say, rookie Alex Smith still is The Man at quarterback. And now, officially, you can call Smith the Niners' starting quarterback after coach Mike Nolan, as expected, announced that the prized No. 1 draft pick will start Saturday's exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders.

The news came as no surprise as Smith has taken the bulk of snaps with the first-team offense every day since camp practices began July 30. And, even though the preseason represents another stage of liftoff toward the regular season, Nolan treated the decision as though it was just another methodical step in the path the team has followed this summer.

"We're going to maintain the same structure in the Oakland game that we have in practice," Nolan said. "We're just maintaining what we've already created. There's no sense in changing it up."

Of course, just has been the case throughout training camp with the plan Nolan has charted, there's a little more to it than that.

These first two weeks of summer practices have been all about seeing what the $50 million rookie can do, and how much he can handle. So far, Smith has met expectations – if not exceeded them – in practically every category.

But the rook has yet to see a category quite like this: The Raiders.

"I want to see how he operates under the pressure," Nolan said. "It is Oakland, it is a semi-rivalry even though it's preseason. I want to see how he responds to that. There's going to be a different group he's looking at on the other side of the line of scrimmage that, obviously, are going to be after his tail. A lot of those guys would certainly like to get a shot at the rookie."

Nolan can count on that. In fact, he already is.

"I want to see how he handles it," the coach continued. "Does he still have the same command of the huddle that he's had out here (in practice)? At the line of scrimmage, is he the same? In the pocket, is he the same? And how does he move the team?"

Smith has done well enough in all those categories to keep sixth-year veteran Tim Rattay – the team's incumbent No. 1 quarterback who started nine games at the position last year – working with the second team. Now – for the time being, at least – Smith has officially supplanted Rattay as the team's starter.

But the rookie realizes that, at this point, that still means very little.

"This doesn't mean a thing," Smith said. "As much as you perform in practice, you have to be able to perform on the field, bottom line. This will be a good opportunity for me to try to do that, and I'll get to learn from it. I'm very excited about it. I've been practicing this whole time and now it will be a game situation against the ones. It's pretty crazy that this is my first preseason game – it's just blown by. This is something every kid dreams about. And now it's here for me."

For Rattay, it's another slap in the face, but not one he hasn't gotten used to by now. The team has featured Smith in the offensive huddle since the get-go while force-feeding the playbook to San Francisco's bonus baby, who received $24 million in guaranteed money as part of the six-year, $49.5 million deal he signed last month that could be worth as much as $57 million.

Rattay is quietly having a solid camp, and he has been promised as many reps as Smith in Saturday's game as Nolan plans to split up the quarterback duties evenly now that the preseason has arrived.

"I understand the situation," Rattay said. "That's kind of how it was going (repetition)-wise throughout the camp. So we'll see what happens. I'm excited to play again, so I'm just looking forward to it and getting ready."

When asked if he still feels he has a chance to reclaim the No. 1 role during the preseason, Rattay responded, "Oh, absolutely. I've been practicing good and I feel good about the way I've been practicing and how I feel. That's all I can do. I feel real good and feel like I've been having a good camp. It's a competitive situation, and I love to compete. I've enjoyed it so far and I'm going to continue that process as we go further."

Smith, who also has taken a predominantly even-keel approach to the competition thus far, indicated he has more sense of urgency to perform now that the stakes are being raised.

"I'm ready to compete in a game," he said. "I think I've proven that I can do some things on the practice field, and now it's the next step up. I've got a great coaching staff, great guys around me, and great guys on this offense and this team. They'll be there for me, and I'll get the job done. These are invaluable (game) reps for me and I really need to take advantage of them, grow from it and keep moving forward. I need to see if I can get it done there."

So does everybody else.


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