A three-man race at QB?

You know that much-anticipated, open-competition battle between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill for the starting quarterback position with the 49ers this year? Well, add J.T. O'Sullivan's name to the fray. Really. Coach Mike Nolan says it's so. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz says he's all for the idea. Get ready, kids, for a three-headed 49ers QB this summer, because these guys say they're serious.

It sort of made inquiring minds wonder earlier this week when Nolan kept dropping O'Sullivan's name in there with all the questions about the impending Smith/Hill open competition.

On Sunday, when Nolan again was asked about his impressions of Smith and Hill at the conclusion of San Francisco's three-day spring minicamp, Nolan pretty much laid down the gauntlet that O'Sullivan - a seventh-year veteran now with his ninth NFL organization who has thrown a grand total of 26 regular-season passes - really, truly, is going to be part of the starting competition at the position.

"You know what," Nolan said, "I'll say this: Probably the biggest impression that I got out of the quarterback position is that it is probably going to be a three-man race rather that just two. I think J.T. O'Sullivan, as it goes, is going to be in the thick of it. So, I'm excited about that."

Martz, when asked about five minutes later how the quarterback competition was going - without being told of the comments just made by Nolan - seemed pretty excited by the prospect, too.

"You know, if (Nolan) said we're going to start any one of those guys, I'd be happy about it," Martz replied. "I think they've all done a nice job out there. They all have a real good grasp of what we're doing. I think they're executing things at a pretty good level right now."

O'Sullivan has a head start over the other two candidates with the intricacies of Martz's detailed offensive system, since he worked with the coach last year when both were with the Detroit Lions. Sullivan, who was playing in NFL Europa last summer, threw the first passes of his NFL career last season while learning Martz's vaunted scheme on the run.

When asked about O'Sullivan being in the mix for the starting role - again, without knowing Nolan had made it official minutes earlier - Martz replied, "Oh, he has an excellent chance, no question about it. If any one of these three guys is going to be our quarterback, I'd be real happy with it. And certainly, J.T. is one of those three. I feel real good about J.T."

But what about Smith and Hill? These are the two guys with legitimate NFL starting experience.

Smith, of course, is the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft who was 7-5 in his previous 12 NFL starts before his progress took a wicked detour in Week 4 last year when he suffered a separated throwing shoulder that doomed his - and the 49ers' - 2007 season.

And Hill, who hadn't thrown a regular-season pass in five previous NFL seasons, is the veteran who came from anonymity and No. 3 on the depth chart after injuries to Smith and Trent Dilfer to go 2-0 in two December starts - leading the 49ers to 40 percent of their 2007 victories - and finish the season with an impressive quarterback rating of 101.3 while completing 68.4 percent of his 79 passes.

Hill showed off his quick release and pinpoint accuracy during minicamp, but he also struggled at times with his throws, particularly deeper down the field. At one point during Sunday morning's final practice, he had three short passes bounce of his intended receiver's hands for interceptions in a five-minute span.

And O'Sullivan, whose repetitions were limited as Smith and Hill took most of the work with the first unit, hardly was impressive during his moments in the pocket, sending up several ducks that either missed receivers or were easy prey for defenders.

The real winner at quarterback during minicamp appeared to be Smith, who not only made a surprising early return to full work from his December shoulder surgery, but looked good doing it. That's not to say Smith didn't have his share of throws that fluttered or were off the mark, but many of his throws were crisp and on the money and he generally looked good running the offense. He didn't show much rust for a guy who has been on the shelf for a while and wasn't expected to be himself again until training camp.

But Smith and Hill won't spend much time worrying about O'Sullivan being added to the QB race. They've got each other to worry about, and they've been listening to that since Hill's emergence last December.

"I think a lot has been made of this (competition)," Smith said. "It's a natural part of the game. It's a competitive sport. Shaun and I have had to compete our entire lives at this game in order to get here. And all of a sudden to say, 'Oh, it's competition.' Hey, that's part of the deal. We play football. We're both going to go out there and give it our all. It's competition, and we're going to push each other. To say it's a foreign thing for us is not accurate."

For his part, Hill said, "I think it will make both of us better and ultimately it will make the team better. We've got a good relationship. We want ultimately what's best for the team. We're going to push each other out there, and we're going to help each other at the same time. I think if there's any quarterback situation in the league where this could work, I think it's us."

And now, at quarterback with the 49ers, us means three.

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