Notebook: Smith clear front-runner at QB

With the next stop training camp in late July, the 49ers still have a three-way competition for the starting job at quarterback. Coach Mike Nolan said the team will have to make some preliminary decisions on which quarterback will get the bulk of the practice snaps once training camp begins, but he does not feel the need to rush into a decision.

Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, is competing against Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan for the starting job, Nolan said. Hill has started just two games in his six-year career, turning both of those starts into victories when finally given an opportunity late last season after injuries to Smith and backup Trent Dilfer.

O'Sullivan has bounced around the league since entering in 2002. The 49ers are his eighth team. He attempted his first NFL passes last season with the Detroit Lions, but the San Francisco coaching staff has been impressed with his ability at the position this spring.

Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Nolan said he feels a lot more comfortable with the quarterback situation than a year ago.

"The pleasing part of this is I believe we have three guys who can win a game for us," Nolan said.

Moving forward, he said he would like to see each of the quarterbacks improve on their weaknesses. Smith is the clear front-runner for the starting job, though Nolan declined to acknowledge anyone has an advantage. However, Nolan did say Smith is the most physically talented quarterback on the roster.

"Alex is very athletic, and has the strongest arm probably of all the guys," Nolan said. "He's really intelligent. He's got a lot of good qualities. Those, I count on all the time. Now, he has to put together four quarters with the group and move the ball consistently and make plays he should make."

Nolan expressed optimism that Smith is making improvements. He said he is encouraged to see Smith getting rid of the ball quicker to avoid sacks.

"Right now, I'm seeing him do things in practice that I haven't seen him do in practice or games before," Nolan said. "Even putting the blitz on his shoulder and getting the ball to the receiver real quick, instead of going back and hoping protection picks it up."

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The three quarterbacks and the rest of San Francisco's offensive players took a crash course this offseason in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense.

Smith described it as his most challenging offseason, as Martz installed far more of the offense during the offseason months than Smith's other three offensive coordinators, he said.

Certainly, there is a lot to fix with an offense that averaged a league-worst 237.3 yards per game, including just 145.0 net yards passing. That is why Mike Nolan, who begins this season on the hot seat, fired Jim Hostler after one season and replaced him with Martz.

Even the offseason practices took on a new look, as there was a greater emphasis on the passing game. Niners quarterbacks were sacked a club-record 55 times last season. Martz had the team working on "hot reads" during the final week of organized team activities in hopes of providing a remedy to the offense's problems last season handling blitzes.

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When Smith watches practice film, he can tell that he looks different. Nobody ever accused Smith of being a gunslinger in the past. Now, Smith sees a difference on film.

"I thought, 'Man, it looks like a gunslinger,'" he said. "But it's actually very fundamental, very thought out. Everything is done for a reason."

The 49ers spent a lot of practice time working on hot reads as a way to take the heat off the offensive line and putting the onus on the quarterbacks. With Martz as offensive coordinator, the 49ers appear ready to place a greater emphasis on hot reads this season.

Tight end Vernon Davis said he never got the ball on a hot read last season to combat a blitz.

"A lot of big plays come from hot routes," Davis said. "I'm excited about our offense."

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The Niners did not address their need for an offensive tackle in the draft, but they were able to capably fill that need last week by landing a 16-game starter with the addition of free agent Barry Sims.

Sims will get the opportunity to compete for the 49ers' starting job at right tackle with Jonas Jennings, who has been injury-prone throughout his NFL career, never making it through a 16-game regular season. Since signing a seven-year, $36 million contract with the 49ers in 2005, Jennings has missed all or parts of 32 games, has just 21 starts and has missed 27 games completely.

If Sims is beaten out for the starting job at right tackle, he will also likely be the 49ers' backup at left tackle. Sims started all 16 games for the Raiders at left tackle last season.

The addition of Sims was a boon for the 49ers, though he was coming off a subpar season. Sims was called for 10 false-start penalties and four holding penalties last season for the Raiders. But Sims is important to the 49ers because the club has so many other question marks on the line.

Second-year player Joe Staley switches this season from right tackle to left tackle. Jennings moves from left tackle to the right side. But the 49ers had no proven depth at the tackle positions behind Staley and Jennings.

Things were so desperate that the 49ers moved guard Chilo Rachal, a second-round draft pick, to right tackle during OTAs. With Sims now on the team, the 49ers were leaning toward moving Rachal back to guard.

After all, the 49ers have questions at right guard, too. Presumptive starter David Baas sustained a torn pectoral tendon while lifting weights in April. The club expects him to be ready to return at some point in training camp. In the meantime, Tony Wragge was working at right guard with the first team.

Now, Rachal might be able to challenge for that position, too. Rachal also could be in the mix for playing time at left guard, as the 49ers have veteran Adam Snyder slated as the new starter there to replace Larry Allen.

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Nolan left town at the conclusion of the 49ers' organized team activities earlier this month.

He went to Afghanistan.

Nolan was part of a contingent that visited military personnel serving in Afghanistan. He was joined on the trip by former 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis and others, including former Ravens coach Brian Billick and former 49ers and Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski.

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Receiver Jason Hill hopes to make the kind of impact in Year 2 that he expected to make as a rookie last season. Hill is part of a crowded wideout situation for the 49ers that includes Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie and draft pick Josh Morgan.

"I feel more confident," Hill said. "I feel like I belong. I feel like I'm going to give these guys a reason to believe. I want to help this team, whether it's on special teams, the offensive side, utility, whatever. Whatever it is, I'm here to do it.

"I was disappointed in myself last year. Some of it was due to what I couldn't help - getting injured and stuff. But this year I'm getting reps and gaining confidence and now I know what I'm doing. All the offseason, there was a lot of stuff drilled into me and now it shows that I know what I'm doing. Hopefully, the coaches who make the decisions see that, too."

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Tight end Delanie Walker has just 23 receptions in 23 career NFL games, but the 49ers rewarded him with a three-year, $6 million contract extension through the 2012 season. Walker received a $1.8 million signing bonus.

Last season, Walker caught 21 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown. But the decision to give him a contract extension might be an indication that the 49ers expect Walker to flourish with Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Walker could be featured with Vernon Davis in two-tight end formations.

Walker is the second young 49ers player to receive a contract extension. Running back Michael Robinson signed a three-year, $3.525 million extension in March that included a $1.2 million signing bonus. He is also signed through 2012.

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Rookie receiver Josh Morgan said he was in awe of teammate Isaac Bruce when he first saw him in the 49ers' locker room. But Morgan said Bruce has been very accommodating and encouraging.

"He saw the coach getting on me," Morgan said. "I just got there and didn't know the plays and the coaches wanted me to just go full speed. He came to me and said he saw me working and told me to keep working hard and that I looked good. Those comments took the load off my shoulders. For someone like him to tell me I was OK and to keep working hard meant a lot. He told me to get in the playbook and keep working hard."

Morgan, the team's sixth-round pick in April, was the first of the 49ers' draft choices to sign a contract. Morgan received a $106,000 signing bonus as part of his four-year deal.

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Offensive Tackle Ramiro Pruneda has been assigned to the 49ers as part of the NFL's international practice squad program.

Pruneda (6-6, 317 pounds) went to training camp last season with the Kansas City Chiefs and spent the 2007 season on the practice squads of the Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. He also played one season in NFL Europa.

Pruneda is one of 16 of the best international football players from around the world who will have an opportunity to play a role in the NFL this season as part of the international program.

The initiative, which enters its fifth year in 2008, will for the first time feature 16 players joining the practice squads of NFL teams to enhance the development of elite football talent from around the world. The expansion of the program was approved by NFL clubs at the league's spring meeting in May.

The 16 players from seven different countries have earned positions on the practice squad rosters of teams in the AFC North, AFC West, NFC South and NFC West Divisions. More than 100 players competed at NFL International Player Development camps held in Europe and Asia in the past 12 months for the right to claim these coveted positions. This year's class brings the total number of participants to 38 since the program's inception in 2004.

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Former NFL player and current broadcaster Tim Ryan recently interviewed with Nolan for a coaching intern position during training camp. Later that day on his NFL Sirius Radio show, Ryan reported he saw 49ers rookie offensive lineman Chilo Rachal body-slam outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain during practice.

Former NFL lineman Joe Salave'a, who coaches at San Jose State, took part in a coaching internship with the 49ers during OTAs.

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The 49ers added defensive lineman La Juan Ramsey to the roster after claiming him off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ramsey played in nine games for the Eagles last season. The New York Giants also put in a waiver claim for his services, but he was awarded to the 49ers.

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Former rival Marshall Faulk paid a visit to the San Francisco 49ers' practice facility during OTAs earlier this month as part of the NFL Network crew.

While Faulk was "behind enemy lines," as he called it, he offered up some words of advice to 49ers running back Frank Gore. Faulk was the main man in Martz's offense when both were with the Rams.

Faulk spoke with Gore via telephone earlier this offseason and offered to fly to the San Francisco area to meet up with Gore. That meeting came when Faulk was on assignment.

"The onus was on me to control a lot of things within our offense," Faulk said. "Frank is going to be used in that same way. He's the core. It's all going to be built around him."

Gore has led the 49ers in pass receptions the past two seasons, but Faulk predicts Gore's pass-catching will take flight under Martz.

Faulk joined 49ers great Roger Craig as the only other member of the 1,000-1,000 club with Martz calling the shots. In 1999, Faulk rushed for 1,381 yards and gained 1,048 yards receiving.

"He'll slowly bring Frank along in that aspect," Faulk said. "I know a lot of people, including myself, are wondering how that matchup is going to work? Because Frank seems like a one-dimensional back. But I think he hasn't been used in that way, and Mike is going to bring him along slowly."

Martz is not doing much of anything else slowly with the 49ers. Quarterbacks Smith and Hill said this offseason is like none other with the volume of offense that has already been installed.

"I'm learning the offense, getting comfortable with it," Gore said. "It's tough, but you have got to stay in the book. One thing about coach Martz, he'll never let you know what's coming the next day. You always have to study."

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The one position on the 49ers' defense that appears to be up for grabs is the strong inside linebacker position that lines up in the team's 3-4 scheme alongside Patrick Willis.

The "Ted" spot has been talked about endlessly among 49ers fans and media, as Jeff Ulbrich, Dontarrious Thomas, Brandon Moore and rookie Larry Grant are competing for the job. The club has also flirted with free-agent veterans Takeo Spikes and Jeremiah Trotter.

"Man, you see so much stuff about the 'Ted' linebacker. You know what I'm saying?" Ulbrich said. "Four or five years ago, nobody knew what a 'Ted' linebacker was. Now, it's the biggest spot on the team that needs addressing."

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Second-year safety Dashon Goldson got an extended look at free safety with incumbent Mark Roman out during OTAs after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his right shoulder last month. Goldson appeared to take advantage of the extended look.

Nolan said Goldson has the best range of any of the team's safeties. Goldson seems to have a knack for the ball. That was one of the drawbacks to Roman's game last season. He did not record an interception the entire season.

"Dashon Goldson is a good player and I look for him to get better and better," Nolan said. "He has some corner abilities, which is what he did at U-Dub (Washington)."

Roman will be ready for the open of training camp. But does the increased time with the first team give Goldson a legitimate chance to win the starting job?

"I like to tell all the backups that they're pushing for a starting role," Nolan said. "There's got to be competition. But the guy he has to beat out is Mark. Because of Mark's injury, he's not practicing. But if he were practicing, he'd be working with the ones right now. That's not to say that Dashon can't beat him out. They're all in a competitive role."

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