As the QB turns: O'Sullivan gets first shot

It seems like just days ago that J.T. O'Sullivan was getting as much time behind center in team drills with the 49ers as the squad's ball boy. Now, suddenly, perhaps surprisingly, he'll be San Francisco's starting quarterback for Friday's exhibition opener against the Oakland Raiders. And so it goes in that daily Niners' drama, "As the QB turns."

It decidedly turned O'Sullivan's way Wednesday when, following the team's late afternoon practice, coach Mike Nolan named the sixth-year journeyman as San Francisco's starter for the Raiders game, culminating a rapid climb at the position for O'Sullivan, who was on the outside looking in at the QB competition just last week.

O'Sullivan didn't take a single snap at quarterback during team drills during the first five days of training camp in July. Not one. Now he's getting first shot at taking control at the team's most vital position. Doesn't that just seem to fit in perfectly with the wacky uncertainty that has prevailed at the position pretty much since summer camp began?

It's difficult to argue that O'Sullivan has earned his shot. He has looked just as good as, if not better than, his competition in Mike Martz's offensive system since being given equal time with Alex Smith and Shaun Hill to show his stuff over the past week of practice.

So now the 49ers want to see what he looks like in a game.

"I've got experience with both Shaun and Alex in game situations, though we do not have that experience thus far with J.T. O'Sullivan," Nolan said. "More than anything else, I just want to see him in a game situation. I've got a lot more familiarity with the other two players. This is not any indication of anything other than this is how we're going to do this preseason game."

But it is an indication that things aren't as they should be with the Niners at quarterback, and also the latest illustration of the uncertainty that has loomed over the position since training camp began – heck, since 2008 began.

It was just a dozen days ago that Nolan stood before a gathered media throng on the first day of training camp practice and announced that the QB competition – thrown open into a three-man race by Nolan and his subordinates during the spring – had essentially been narrowed down to a two-man race between Smith and Hill.

But neither of the supposed front-runners has taken command of the position or, more to the point, gotten a good handle on the intricate machinations of the detailed Mike Martz offensive system. While both Smith and Hill – particularly Smith – have had their shining moments, they've also looked ragged running the offense at times – make that, too many times.

So back into the competition jumped O'Sullivan last week, practically by necessity. He doesn't have the arm and athleticism of Smith or the guile of Hill, but by golly, he sure has a handle on the offense. And his quick release and accurate spirals over the past week have made him a viable candidate at the position.

They also have made him the starter for the team's preseason opener, which has to come as a surprise to many and a shock to some who figured the team would stick with Smith as the starter this week and see how this three-way competition plays out from there.

Now Smith will be working with the second-teamers in the second quarter and perhaps into the second half against the Raiders, and who really knows if he will see the light of day as the starter with the 49ers ever again?

Actually, that's exaggerating the point. Smith will start again, probably next week at home against the Green Bay Packers – and we won't even mention the drama going on at QB with that team. But the job that once seemed destined to be his into the next decade now seems even more very much up for grabs.

You have to take Nolan at his word in this situation – he and his staff really do need to see what O'Sullivan can do working with the first team against opposing first-teamers in a real game. Then they can make a decision if, in fact, he really does belong in the competition with Smith and Hill over the telling week to come.

Because so far, the answer to that has been a ringing yes. And while Nolan says not to start reading too much into the decision to go with O'Sullivan at the start, you can start reading more into it depending on how he performs in what certainly will be the most important August start of his well-traveled NFL career.

"As I've said before, I'm not in a position to name a starter for the season," Nolan said. "That's not where we're at yet. We're just taking it one day at a time. We're just talking about this first preseason game. We're just dealing with this one right now."

So, SFI asked, this is not an indication that, as of today, O'Sullivan has officially ascended to the top of the team's depth chart?

"No," Nolan replied. "We'll just take it a day at a time and get the best look we can, and that's where we're at right now."

So stay tuned. Because as Wednesday's developments surely indicate, things can change by the day with the 49ers regarding "As the QB turns." And one can only hope the latest spin doesn't mean the team has taken a turn for the worst at the position.

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