Will Smith's new tutor bring out QB's talent?

Alex Smith has a new tutor, and everybody knows how much the 49ers' kid quarterback still has to learn. Smith had a tough time under Mike McCarthy in 2005 learning the intricacies and infrastructure of playing the position at the professional level, but Norv Turner may be better at moving Smith along in the developmental process and improving his understanding of the game. Turner has a history of molding young quarterbacks, and he's eager to do the same with San Francisco's young signal-caller.

"Absolutely," Turner said earlier this week when he was hired to replace McCarthy as San Francisco's new offensive coordinator. "I saw a lot of (Smith's) college tape and saw him two or three times on TV late in the year (last season). Alex has a chance to be a great young player."

The jury definitely still is out on that one.

But if the 21-year-old Smith – the youngest player on San Francisco's roster – is headed toward greatness while his career still is young, he will need somebody with a great grasp of NFL offense to guide him there.

Turner has stepped right up for that job.

"This is a young football team, and I look forward to being a part of young players' development," Turner said. "I was certainly impressed with Alex Smith all through the evaluation process. It's nice to get a young (quarterback) who's got a year under his belt because that's a tough period that young guys go through, learning how to play in this league and learning how to grow in this league."

Smith's growing pains almost made it hurt to watch last season.

He was overmatched against NFL defenses, never getting comfortable in McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense until showing a grasp of the system during the season's final month – particularly during San Francisco's two-game winning streak to end the season.

Smith completed 28 of 45 passes for 290 yards in those two games, including the first – and, so far, only – touchdown pass of his career. That allowed Smith to push up his final season quarterback rating to 40.8 – not exactly respectable, but not the worst in NFL history for a No. 1 overall pick, either, which is where Smith was headed in mid-December.

Turner has worked with one of those No. 1 overall picks before, and it ended up working out pretty well for all parties involved.

Troy Aikman was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Thrown into the starting position with a terrible team, Aikman struggled mightly in 11 games, finishing with a quarterback rating of 55.7 as the Cowboys scored just 204 points and finished 1-15.

He improved the next season but the progress was marginal. When Turner arrived as Dallas' offensive coordinator in 1991, Aikman's third season, the young QB began his ascent toward a Hall of Fame-level career that saw Aikman become one of just three quarterbacks in NFL history (San Francisco's Joe Montana being one of them) to lead their team to three Super Bowl titles. Aikman is a finalist for induction to the Hall of Fame this year.

By the time Turner left Dallas after the 1993 season to become head coach of the Washington Redskins, Aikman had gone from a wayward young quarterback to a Pro Bowler who'd led the Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl titles under Turner's tutelage. Aikman began his string of six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl during Turner's first season in Dallas.

"I was fortunate to have been coached by outstanding coaches throughout my athletic career," Aikman said earlier this decade when asked to pinpoint one coach who had the greatest impact on his career. "However, if I had to pick one that had the biggest influence on me, I would say Norv Turner."

"Norv joined the Cowboys in 1991, my third year in the league," Aikman continued. "We became friends almost instantly, but there was more to his influence on me than our friendship. Norv is an outstanding football coach and I was at a point in my career that I was really looking for someone to give me direction. Norv not only provided that direction for me, but he provided it for our entire offensive football team. I have said many times that I don't believe we would have won one Super Bowl, let alone three, if it hadn't been for Norv Turner's arrival in Dallas."

Turner's arrival in San Francisco finds him linked to another full-of-potential-but-unpolished quarterback prospect who's in dire need of some of that kind of direction.

But, despite a rocky rookie season that saw Smith complete just 51 percent of his passes and throw 11 interceptions, Turner said Smith already is moving in the right direction. Smith has his NFL footing underneath him now, Turner said, and now it's all about taking the next sequential steps as quickly as possible.

Turner had his first long talk with Smith a day before he even was introduced in his new position with the 49ers. Their working relationship won't at all be about Smith starting over in a new offensive system and philosophy brought to the team by Turner.

"You never start over," Turner said. "Alex has a year under his belt, and I think that's the hardest year for any quarterback. There have been many young quarterbacks, and the reason you drafted that high is because of where the team is. There are some young quarterbacks that had to grow with teams. I think that year (Smith) has invested is something that will help him become a lot better. The skills that he has, he has. It's just a matter of tying it all together."

Turner even inferred that Smith actually could be ahead of a player such as Aikman – who took a pounding in his first two years with the Cowboys – in the developmental process of a young QB.

"Alex is ahead of that, because he hadn't got beat up for two years," Turner said. "He just got banged around pretty good for one. It doesn't matter. I was with Trent Green. He had been cut by San Diego and Canada. We signed him as a third guy (in Washington) and watched him grow."

Besides Aikman and Green, Turner also has been instrumental in the development into NFL starters of unproven products such as Gus Frerotte, Brad Johnson, Jay Fiedler and Sage Rosenfels. Veteran Doug Flutie also had the best season of his NFL career during the one season Turner was offensive coordinator in San Diego.

"Each guy is different and you're going to coach them on the things that they do well," Turner said. "You're going to try to help them with the things that they don't do as good. When you get a player like Alex, the thing that you need to do is get as many good people around him as you can. That gives him a chance to be successful. The biggest thing that happened for (Aikman) was that each year he got more and more good players around him. Then he was able to take advantage of his abilities."

Now that Smith has Turner around him, the 49ers are looking for the same kind of thing from their unseasoned franchise quarterback.


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