Young guns ready to go at quarterback

On the first day of life after Tim Rattay, the 49ers' kiddie quarterbacks corps trotted out to practice Wednesday with an us-against-the-world mentality. Or something like that. Led by fresh-faced rookie Alex Smith, the baby of the three fledgling QBs still on the roster, San Francisco's new rotation behind center isn't exactly shivering from the sudden increase in pressure and responsibility. They may be young and inexperienced, but they say bring it on.

"Being so young, let people talk about us," Smith said, coming about as close to defiance as the gracious rookie is capable at this stage of his career. "We know what we're going to do and we know what we have to do. Talking to Ken and Cody, we're going to enjoy the challenge. I know there's a work ethic among us. We're going to put in the work. We're going to get it done."

Not that they have a choice.

The safety net Rattay and his veteran experience provided Smith and the other quarterbacks was abruptly pulled out from underneath the trio Tuesday when the 49ers beat the NFL trade deadline and sent Rattay packing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now it's Smith, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett to lead the 49ers forward at quarterback into their uncertain future. That should cause a few gulps among the masses who still would like to see San Francisco win more games this season.

Smith is 21, and he admittedly still has a lot to learn. Dorsey is 24, and he admittedly still has a lot to prove. Pickett is 25, and he admittedly needs some time just to brush up on playing quarterback after playing on special teams this season and as a scout-team receiver and defensive back during team practice sessions.

But these greenhorns aren't exactly wearing wide-eyed expressions. They're wearing a look of hunger and excitement about the kind of opportunity this latest development presents each of them.

"Tim's a good player, so I guess that just shows that they have a lot of confidence in Alex, Ken and I," Pickett said. "We wish Tim the best of luck, and we're going to miss him, but we'll see how this plays out. I know I'm confident in my ability to play quarterback."

Pickett's personal situation illustrates just how much catching up the QBs still have to do. As a promising fourth-stringer kept on the roster exactly because this sort of thing might happen, Pickett has not taken a snap at quarterback in practice since the middle of August.

Even Dorsey, who now is one play away from being San Francisco's starting quarterback, has taken only limited practice snaps since training camp ended as Rattay and Smith got all the work once the regular season began.

But, since he's the veteran among the group now with seven NFL starts, Dorsey says he'd be ready yesterday if he was called upon to play today.

"Definitely," Dorsey said. "The way I look at it, I have a job to do, be it this week, two weeks – however long down the line. If I'm called upon to go into a game, I have a job to do. Naturally, I would like to be a little more finely tuned, so to speak, because the reps just aren't there right now, but it's going to come back quick."

Cutting ties with Rattay wasn't unexpected, but most thought it wouldn't happen until after the season, particularly since it seemed wise to keep around an experienced veteran for Smith to lean on while he goes through his growing-pains struggles. Now Dorsey, who has played in just eight NFL games, is the veteran, and the young QBs will have to lean on each other.

"That's the way it is," coach Mike Nolan said. "It's where we're at and what we're working with. We know the situation. We didn't draft Alex to sit on the bench. We drafted him to play, and the only way he's going to get maturity and grow and learn the things is to play. So that's what we're doing with him."

Smith and Kyle Orton of the Chicago Bears are the only rookie quarterbacks currently starting in the NFL. Smith definitely looked the part of untrained rookie thrown to the wolves in his starting debut Oct. 2 against Indianapolis, when he threw four interceptions, committed five turnovers and was sacked five times while passing for just 74 yards.

Smith has been groomed for the starting role since he was drafted. He began training camp ahead of Rattay on the depth chart and started San Francisco's first two preseason games. But the rookie played poorly in those games and Nolan then announced Rattay would be the season starter.

Now Rattay's a goner, given the quick hook after losing his final three starts in San Francisco, then given his ticket out of town two weeks later.

Smith leaned on Rattay for advice and knowledge, but said he doesn't feel any more pressure or responsibility now that the veteran no longer is around to turn to for support.

"I'm still the starting quarterback, just like I was (before Tuesday's trade)," Smith said. "It was made clear to me before that, barring injury, I was going to be the guy the rest of the season. I was going to get all the (repetitions). But it will definitely be different now. There will be three of us and obviously we're all pretty young."

Young but precocious. And also eager and inspired to move forward now that Rattay is out of the way of their development.

"(The trade) definitely took me by surprise, but it kind of motivates you to go out and work even that much harder because now the coaches have put their trust in you to do a job," Dorsey said. "Because now I'm that much closer to having to be in the game. They entrusted me in a job, and I intend to do that job to the best of my ability."

The 49ers have turned over the team to Smith, but Dorsey understands his situation. There's a big difference from being the No. 3 quarterback to suddenly becoming the backup. Dorsey has to be ready, and he knows all about it. He was 1-6 as a starter last year during San Francisco's 2-14 season, when he shuffled in and out of the lineup because of Rattay's multiple injuries.

"I'm excited about the position I'm in," Dorsey said. "It provides an opportunity for me to be the second-string guy now on a team that I love to play for. That's an exciting opportunity for me. I'm excited for Tim and the new opportunity that he has, and we're just going to move on here from where we're at."

And there's nowhere to move but up for the youngest and least experience quarterback unit in the NFL.


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