Surprise, surprise! Smith starts at minicamp

So much for bringing Alex Smith along slowly. When the 49ers began their spring minicamp Friday, Smith was behind center to take the first snap of team drills as San Francisco's starting quarterback, as though the turmoil and injury of 2007 which left that status uncertain had been discarded to distant memory. The team had indicated just a week ago Smith might be limited, but that wasn't the case.

Smith came out barking signals and running the offense and looking every bit like the undisputed starter he was before he was slammed to the ground by Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard in Week 4 last September, suffering a separated throwing shoulder that would doom his season – not to mention the 49ers' – and ultimately require surgery from which Smith now is in the final stages of recovering.

But one thing was different. Smith no longer is the undisputed starting quarterback. That job has been thrown up for grabs after the emergence of Shaun Hill at the end of last season.

But that's another story for another day – in fact a story for several days and months to come. The big deal was Smith back in the saddle and running the offense, five months after having surgery to repair ligament damage in his right shoulder.

And there wasn't much limited about his play, other than the fact that the Niners didn't have him heave any long bombs down the field.

Not that he couldn't have done it.

"It felt pretty good out there," Smith said. "I think I'm kind of right along where they want me, right on schedule with where I'm supposed to be right now. We've taken all the necessary steps. I've pushed my shoulder to where it needs to be, and it did feel good out there."

Smith shared snaps with Hill – with J.T. O'Sullivan getting the occasional repetition – and it was Hill who began the afternoon practice with the first team. But it already appears that Smith has taken some significant strides toward getting his old job back. As if he ever lost it.

With perhaps a little ripple of new muscle across his chest, Smith looked quick and decisive running new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complex scheme. He had no problem making all the throws, though a play was never called in which he was asked to air it out and sail a pass halfway down the field. Smith estimated his longest throw traveled "35 to 40 yards."

Just more than a week ago, coach Mike Nolan, while acknowledging that Smith was making steady progress in his rehabilitation, indicated the Niners would continue to bring Smith along slowly and he might be limited in this camp.

"I was wrong," Nolan said Friday. "I rely on the medical staff for that. I'm not a doctor, and I'm not going to pretend to be. The medical staff lets me know. If Alex felt he wasn't ready to go, then he had the opportunity to voice that. But Alex said he was ready to go. He's not 100 percent – no one is from the standpoint of being game ready. … This isn't the time to protect guys. If they're not ready to practice, they shouldn't even be out there. They're ready to go."

Smith is more than ready to put both his and the team's dismal 2007 season into the category of happily forgotten. With Martz now in charge of the offense, Smith said things like, "It's the year to really start over and kind of wipe the slate clean," and, "with coach Martz coming in, try to put (2007) behind me."

"There are some things that, yeah, I look back at (from 2007) and you're a little frustrated about and pissed off about," Smith said. "But there are some things I learn from that. I look back and say, ‘Man, I was stupid, there was things I wish I would have done different.' In a sense, you learn from it. You become tougher, you appreciate the good times more and it toughens you up for some of the other stuff that you couldn't control. But you learn from what was in your control and maybe what you could have done differently and then you move on."

Smith said the remnants of the worst injury of his career are minimal, and there is no pain like during his aborted attempt to come back a month after the injury, which only served to aggravate his condition and lead to the end of his season.

Smith says he still experiences some tightness, "maybe a little bit here and there, it depends on the day, it kind of comes and goes with it. But anything I'm feeling now is pretty minimal, I will say that. I'm feeling good out there and I think it will only continue to get better."

Smith is in the process of breaking down his mechanics and basically re-learning the quarterback position with Martz as his professorial tutor. Smith says Martz has his own way of doing things, "so we're doing things to maybe break habits that I've developed over the last few years."

Smith listed things such as his drops from center, his balance and footwork, body weight, posture, shoulders and even eyes as some of the finer details that he is focusing on under Martz's watchful eye and guiding hand.

Needless to say, after the fiasco of 2007, Nolan is relieved to see Smith getting healthy and making progress. Smith is still the 49ers' quarterback, it's obvious now, and Hill will have to take the job from him rather than the other way around.

"It's only the first day, so what we're really talking about is the progress from an injury standpoint more than anything else," Nolan said. "I thought (Smith) threw the ball pretty well. He's also getting used to what Mike Martz demands out of the quarterback.

"Today, just watching him, I thought he did a good job. He looks like he's going to be fine. He doesn't shake the shoulder or do anything like that to make me believe that it's sore."

And seeing is believing. Alex Smith is back, his shoulder healed, and looking to be better than before in every sense of the word.

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