Just call him Captain Smith

Alex Smith is officially captain of the good ship 49ers. Not the only captain, but it's clear now where the maturing second-year QB stands among his teammates and in the team consciousness. Smith was the top vote-getter this week when the 49ers went to a new method of determining their game captains, and there's few surprises in the guys who'll be standing next to him during pre-game coin tosses.

For many years, coaches have selected the 49ers' captains on a per-game basis. But Mike Nolan, looking to add another wrinkle to the team concept that now pervades the squad, decided to scrap that process and have the players vote for captains who will represent the Niners for the remainder of the season.

"I'm more of the thought, and always have been, that players ought to pick who their leaders are," Nolan said Wednesday. "I don't know that I would have done this a year ago, but I think this is a good time for it. I feel very confident that the people we have in the building now know what it looks like, and certainly are good enough to choose the guys. At this time, they know what it looks from a leadership standpoint, and I don't believe it's my place to pick their leaders."

Nolan went on: "Captains, to me, are leaders. Even though I do it each week, sometimes it becomes difficult for me to pick someone to represent them, when it's really their responsibility. It's what they're thinking that is most important to me."

And what many of the 49ers are thinking is that Smith should be out front and center as the team moves forward, even though at 22 he's still one of the youngest players on the team, not to mention the NFL's youngest starting quarterback.

But, just a quarter into his second NFL season, Smith already has come of age in several respects, and not just in the eyes of his teammates. He was the productive quarterback who directed the league's fourth-ranked offense before last week's clunker in Kansas City, and he has displayed poise and confident determination along with both mental and physical toughness.

Smith isn't the only youngster selected as one of the five team captains. Third-year veteran Keith Lewis, 24, was selected as special teams captain. Smith and Lewis are joined by three established veterans. Sixth-year left tackle Jonas Jennings joins Smith as an offensive captain, while the defensive captains are 13th-year lineman Bryant Young and 11th-year cornerback Walt Harris.

"There were other players voted for, but those are the top vote-getters," Nolan said. "I think they are good representatives of the team. I feel ‘captain' has a lot to do with leadership, and it's important to me that they look to those guys. Those will be our captains for the rest of the year, and I look forward to those guys doing a good job of that."

Pretty much like he has handled himself since the day he arrived with the 49ers, Smith talked in even tones about his latest accomplishment, while at the same time saying it really doesn't mean jack until he continues to produce and earn respect on the field. What really matters, Smith said, is how he and the team continue to grow and move forward as a collective unit.

"You know what? I don't think a title really makes leadership," Smith said. "I think leadership is something that is earned, and it's really more of a respect (thing) than all of a sudden you just get a title. That really doesn't mean anything. It's a big honor to be voted by your teammates, your peers, but it's a big responsibility as well."

Still, it's yet another indication that Smith no longer is the boyish NFL neophyte of his rookie season and now is looked up to by several of his teammates - old and new - despite his relative youth.

Since he's the franchise quarterback Nolan is building the team around, that's a pretty good position for Smith to be in among his teammates at this point in his career.

Nolan, who was "very pleased" that Smith was the top vote-getter, said, "One of the reasons it pleased me is that the position is critical; he plays a key position. He's only a second-year player and it says a lot about what the players' expectations are of him, that they see him with the ability to do that. It doesn't mean that he has to be any more demonstrative or be anybody else. It says more about what they think of the guy, which is every bit as important to me."

The other captains pretty much were selected true to form: Lewis has taken over as the hard-hitting leader of the special teams from the departed Terry Jackson; Jennings has become a stabilizing force on the team's revamped offensive line; Young - a four-time All-Pro - is the stoic, longtime leader of both the team in general and defense in particular; and Harris has brought the wisdom of his experience to the team while leading by example with his strong play so far in the secondary.


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