Niners positioning O'Sullivan to be The Man

Mike Nolan continues to stick by the assertion that it's not necessarily so, but it sure does look like the 49ers are moving forward and preparing as though J.T. O'Sullivan is their starting quarterback. And we're not talking about just Saturday's exhibition home opener against the Green Bay Packers. We're talking about when the regular season opens Sept. 7.

From the team's viewpoint, as in what comes out of Nolan's mouth, it still is hush-hush and don't draw any solid implications from what is happening and what the team has been doing this week at quarterback.

But, since O'Sullivan was named Thursday to start a preseason game for the second consecutive week, and since he has taken every first-team snap since the 49ers resumed practice on Sunday after last week's 18-6 loss to the Raiders, it's a reasonable assumption that if O'Sullivan isn't the No. 1 guy yet at quarterback, he's pretty gosh darn close to it.

O'Sullivan can ostensibly lock up the position with a positive showing Saturday, because the 49ers – despite what they insist publicly – can't let this quarterback thing go on a whole lot longer before they decide on a regular starter. Training camp officially ends next week, and San Francisco's third preseason game against the Chicago Bears is only one week from today.

The third preseason game is typically when most NFL teams play their starters the longest in preparation for the regular season. Typically, practically every NFL team has its starting quarterback for the season determined by then.

If the 49ers play it any differently, they risk falling behind even further at a position where confusion and uncertainty has reigned since training camp began in July.

The only certainty now is that O'Sullivan has been getting all the work with the first team, and looking pretty good doing it. He wasn't bad in his starting debut with the team last week against the Raiders, either, though his 5-for-8, 71-yard passing performance lost a lot of its shine when two San Francisco drives ended with O'Sullivan turnovers – one an interception at the Oakland goal line and another with a fumble near midfield.

"This game is another opportunity to show what I have," O'Sullivan said Thursday. "I feel good, as kind of evolving every day and going out there and trying to play exactly how they want me to play. The next step is to be able to do it consistently. You have to go out there and be consistent and make the improvements on what happened in the last game and how you're growing each day in practice."

Some might have thought this would have been Alex Smith's week to grow in practice and perhaps start this week. But Smith has worked with the second team in what has been a trying week for him personally.

Smith learned Sunday that David Edwards, his former roommate and a close personal friend since childhood, committed suicide at age 24. The families of Smith and Edwards are so close that Edwards' memorial service will be held Friday at the Smith household in San Diego.

Smith is excused from Friday's team activities and is scheduled to fly to San Diego on Thursday night. He'll fly back to the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday morning, and he is scheduled to enter Saturday's game when O'Sullivan leaves it as the 49ers go with the same quarterback rotation they used last week against the Raiders.

Smith looked good practicing with the second team Thursday, but he had a poor practice Wednesday, and some are attributing that to being preoccupied with other things going on in his head.

In fact, the personal tragedy Smith is dealing with might have something to do with Nolan sticking with O'Sullivan as the first-teamer this week instead of seeing what Smith could do during a week in the role.

When asked if the fact Smith won't be around Friday figures into the playing equation Saturday, Nolan said, "I think it's unfair to even comment on that issue with how it relates to what we are doing because that's a personal issue. We went through that last year and I know Alex is having a difficult time and I'd rather leave it at that than tie it into what we are doing because I don't think that's fair."

Smith said, "Obviously, this has been a really hard week, let alone the quarterback stuff going on. It's been really hard. I've talked to coach Nolan a lot this week and I think it's a difficult situation just with what happened. I think maybe he was looking to … I don't know. Maybe this could have been a different week."

Instead, it has been another week of J.T. Overdrive. San Francisco's three-way competition at quarterback has suddenly taken on the appearance of becoming a grooming session for O'Sullivan as the starter.

If O'Sullivan continues to show progress Saturday, the 49ers will have to think hard about how they're going to handle the situation at quarterback until the regular season begins.

Because of his upside potential, Smith still seems like the guy who can ultimately take the 49ers the farthest during the 2008 season. But he clearly does not have the same kind of grasp and command of Mike Martz's offense that O'Sullivan does. So what do the 49ers do? It will be difficult for Smith to ever catch up and develop that command if he is not playing or practicing with the first team.

"Right now, we are just in an evaluation process," Nolan said, sticking to the company line. "We are utilizing this time in the preseason practice and in the games to evaluate our people.

"Obviously, we are talking about what gives us the best opportunity to win. I am still encouraged by all three quarterbacks. I feel a lot better than I ever have (about the position) since I've been here at any time. It's just very difficult to say what's fair and fair to our team. The things that we're trying to do right now are trying to get ourselves in position to win, so the entire football team is affected by what we do."

And by the looks of things, that means putting O'Sullivan in a position to be The Man at quarterback.

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