Alex Smith: Doing it the hard way

In contrast to his Arizona counterpart, Alex Smith has developed as a NFL quarterback outside the limelight. But now, as he enters his pivotal third year as the 49ers' starting QB, there is light shining on both Smith and his team, and here he covers a spectrum of topics regarding the 49ers, his personal progress and Monday night's consequential season opener against the Cardinals.

Q: Your counterpart in Arizona, Matt Leinart, has kind of followed a celebrity path to the league, where as you – despite being a No. 1 overall pick – have kind of come in under the celebrity radar. Do you prefer being in your position instead of having all the glamour surrounding you?
Smith:
Very much so, by nature. I'm not saying one's better than another. Fore me, I prefer being out of that limelight. Obiously there's a certain amount of it that comes with the position. But as far as the Hollywood stuff … No, it's not for me.

Q: You've become rather close with him in recent years, haven't you?
Smith:
I do know Matt, yes, I know Matt well. Obviously, I got to spend some time with him through the things in college. Even through Reggie (Bush), I got to know him. And he's a nice guy, a good guy. I think it's tough sometimes people make decisions off what they see and they don't really get to know what someone's really like.

Q: With this game on Monday Night Football, there's going to be a lot of Alex vs. Matt comparisons. How ready are you for that kind of scrutiny?
Smith:
I don't think any scrutiny compares to becoming the first pick and what comes with that. I think it's all kind of downhill since then. But I would kind of expect it. We both play in the same division, both young teams. It kind of comes with the position. As a quarterback, as a player, I think you are constantly evaluating and comparing and doing things like that, just by nature of being competitive.

Q: What kind of impact will the return of Frank Gore have on the game plan this week?
Smith:
Frank's a big part of this offense. He does a lot for this team, we put a lot on his shoulders and depend on him a lot. We've all got to step up, and he'll be there. I don't think the game plan dramatically will change much. He looks good out here in practice with the fresh legs and I think he feels comfortable with his hand now. Every indication I have is he feels good and looks good.

Q: Do you feel more confident now that, when teams try to gang up on Frank, you have the weapons and other people to exploit that?
Smith:
Definitely, and we're going to have to to win games. With all that Frank does, and the way we've ran the ball in the past, defenses would be stupid not to make him their focus, which is great. It gives us what we want outside. It's an opportunity to make plays one-on-one, it gives us a lot of one-on-one matchups. And we have to take advantage of them. And that's the way we all want it. If you talk to our receivers, I don't think they'd want it any other way than having that opportunity. So I think we realize it and we're excited about it.
Q: What kind of a season do you expect to see out of Vernon Davis?
Smith:
It's hard to say right now, to project over 16 games. But I think he's a guy who's going to do a lot more for this offense. He does a lot already, but I think his role keeps expanding because he can do so much – pass (catching), blocking, running routes. He's a guy that, with that speed everybody talks about, not only has the ability to get him open, but get other people open on this team. So he's a guy that can do a lot.

Q: Can you explain what you mean about Vernon's speed getting other people open?
Smith:
It's like Frank. The more Vernon can do, and the more he has success, the more focus he's going to get. And defenses all of a sudden are going to have to turn their focus to Vernon as well and how they're going to handle him. And I think that's the goal, so all of a sudden when you go out there on Sunday, they can't turn their focus to any one person. You've got five or six that are all out there and can all win games for you.

Q: What do you think about Vernon's toughness and the physical nature of his play?
Smith:
I think that's the thing that makes Vernon so special. There's a lot of guys that are fast, but he's a guy that's not only fast and agile, but so physical. And I think the great thing that makes him so special, is he's a guy that takes as much pride in his blocking as he does in route running and getting open and catching balls. There are a lot of receiving tight ends out there who are liabilities in the run game. He's not that. He works extremely hard in blocking and being there for his teammates. That makes him even better and more valuable.

Q: You don't mind the hi-jinx that comes with his game?
Smith
You know, we've been teammates going on Year 2 now, and knowing his work ethic and his hunger – how good he wants to be – I don't. Here's a guy that loves to play, loves getting excited. Yeah, sometimes it can kind of be overboard, but it's hard to fault his excitement. It would be one thing if it affected his work ethic. But here's a guy that works extremely hard, wants to be a good player, wants to help this team. So, no, I'm not worried about it.

Q: How important is it for the third receiver position to become more productive this year than they have in the past?
Smith:
I think that's going to kind of come hand-in-hand with this passing game becoming more successful. The more we're going to do in the passing game, I think that third receiver is going to have to step up, whoever it is. And it could be a number of guys. The more that we're going to do in the passing game, and as we expand it, we're going to have to have more faces involved. So I definitely look for that to become bigger and more involved.

Q: Jim Hostler mentioned he'd like to see the passing game jump 10 to 12 spots in the NFL rankings. Is that doable?
Smith:
Absolutely. Especially in the NFL, where there's so much parity and so much changes year to year. But if you look at the faces here, the guys we have outside, with Vernon, with our running backs who can all catch balls, I think we have the ability to really take a jump.

Q: How much more comfortable are you at this time this year as opposed to this time last year?
Smith:
It's not even close to the same place. This time last year, we were going in with a new offense and it felt very much like it was my rookie year all over again. And getting hurt my rookie year and having those limited starts, this time last year really felt like you're starting all over again, in a sense. So this year I'm kind of in a completely different place as far as where I am mentally, physically, how I feel about this team, about the offense, about playing quarterback – everything, in all facets of the game. It's a much different place than last year.

Q: And taking a leadership role, are teammates getting the trust in you to take over a huddle and command a game?
Smith:
Well, I think that is leadership. By nature, the quarterback position kind of has it. You have to prove and earn it. And it comes through reps, it comes through taking shots and getting up, and being in the huddle with your teammates, and playing those 16 games, and being here in the offseason. It comes from all of that.

Q: What are your earliest memories of Monday Night Football? Are you the kind of kid that snuck out to see the end of the games? Were you allowed to stay up and watch?
Smith:
Definitely, yeah. Staying up was the issue being young. Everyone has the intro song stuck in their head, memorized. Coming home from school, you're thinking football's over, but then, oh yeah, there's Monday Night on. I grew up in a football family and loved watching it, so it was great. It was a reason not to do homework. I watched a lot of games.

Q: How conscious are you of Arizona winning the last four games between the two teams?
Smith:
It's something we think about, you know? I think this team realizes how much different we are than the last time we played them, how far we've come. I think when you look back at those tapes, we've all watched those game films and realized we did to hurt ourselves, you know, self-inflicted. I think the team's excited to get an opportunity back at them, and loving that it's on Monday night.

Q: Do you feel more on the spot now to push this team to the next level, because that's what quarterbacks have to do in this league?
Smith:
No. I think those opportunities are going to come and I don't need to force them. I'm going to have the opportunity to make plays and help the team win. Those are going to be there for me. I don't need to force that issue, though. I think I just need to continue to do the things I've always done, try to stay within myself and get the ball into the playmakers hands, make good decisions and make the throws when they're there and not try to force something that's not there and try to create something that's not there.

Q: Is the camaraderie and togetherness there for this team as the season begins?
Smith:
I think this team is more together, more of a unit than any team I've been on at this point. The season's different, I think it makes you become closer. But through preseason, through camp, this is the closest team I've been on, especially in the NFL. As far as attitude goes, the goals, the competitiveness, this team has so much in common and is so close. And they're all great guys in the locker room, so I think we all love spending time with each other, being here and being a part of this thing. At this point, games are going to make you become even closer, so I'm excited about that.


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