Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

Alex Smith managed to be play just well enough as the San Francisco 49ers’ rookie quarterback last year that he starts Sunday’s game against the Chargers at old Candlestick Park – or whatever corporation bought the place’s naming rights this year – with Frank Gore in his backfield instead Reggie Bush.

Smith and Bush, as any San Diego football fan worth his TV remote should know, were teammates at La Mesa’s Helix High. But more than that, they were the first high school teammates to be Heisman Trophy finalists in the same year following the 2004 season.

Smith, an All-American at Utah, went on to become the first pick of the 2005 NFL draft, while Bush returned to USC for his junior year and later ventured back to the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, this time to bring home the Heisman Trophy.

“I always said I hoped we wouldn’t pick too early,” Smith said of the 2006 NFL draft. “I know what kind of player Reggie is, and what he presents on the field. Part of me would have loved to play with him again, but I didn’t want to pick too early.”

Last year Smith struggled behind a weak offensive line and ordinary talent at the skill positions as the 49ers finished with a 4-12 record. But Smith, who started seven games and showed some late-season development, led San Francisco to wins in the team’s last two games.

The 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams 24-20 for his first win as a starter when he completed 12 of 16 passes for 131 yards. In the season finale, a 20-17 overtime win against the Houston Texans, he threw his first career touchdown pass and finished 16 of 29 for 159 yards to go with the TD toss and one interception.

Those wins dropped the 49ers to the sixth pick in the first round, costing them a shot at Bush. The Houston Texans had the first pick with a 2-14 record.

Former Texans general manager Charley Casserly did his best to reunite Smith and Bush when he passed on Bush and picked defensive end Mario Williams (Casserly was later kicked upstairs for the blunder to a cushy job in the NFL office). But the New Orleans Saints, with the second pick, weren’t as dumb as the Texans to pass on Bush, soon to be regarded as the Michael Jordan of the NFL.

A year ago, Smith should have felt as he did about winning games as the 2005 season unfolded, but imagine the threat the 49ers would pose with Bush in the backfield along with San Francisco’s 2006 free agent signing of Antonio Bryant that has bolstered the receiving corps. The 49ers also improved the offensive line with the return of left tackle Jonas Jennings and the free agent signing of guard Larry Allen and they signed veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer to mentor Smith.

Bryant, a fifth-year veteran, has already helped Smith by catching 17 balls for 337 yards, a 19.8 average per catch, and one touchdown. The score came on a 72-yarder in a 20-13 win over the St. Louis Rams. Smith was 11 of 22 for 233 yards with the one TD toss and no interceptions.

In the 49ers’ second win, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder’s best game as a pro, San Francisco defeated the Oakland Raiders last week 34-20. Smith was 15 of 19 for 165 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.

San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young, who is now in his 13th season with the 49ers, said the players noticed Smith’s work ethic and leadership throughout his struggles last year.

“He has a bright future ahead of him,” Young said. “A lot of times guys come in their first year and they try too hard to make the big play. He’ll start to read the defenses better with experience and he’ll become a great player.”

The jump to the NFL was tougher than Smith expected.

“I don’t think I realized that after mini-camp and the preseason,” Smith said. “Everyone said it was faster, but I didn’t see it as a drastic change. I didn’t notice until we had a bye week and went back to Utah to watch a game. Standing on the sidelines, I could see how much slower the college game was.”

He also went from playing in isolated Salt Lake City to the Bay Area’s broad media market.

“My first mini-camp, all we were doing was stretching when I noticed there were literally 70 cameras pointed at me,” Smith said. “I was laughing to myself.”

Smith finished his rookie year with abysmal quarterback rating of 40.8, largely due to 11 interceptions and just one touchdown pass. But his rating this year is more respectable 85.2 as he’s completed 89 of 152 passes for 1,071 yards with six touchdowns and only three interceptions.

His rating was 103.0 against the Rams and 120.5 against the Raiders.

On Sunday, Smith faces the toughest defense he’s seen this year, with the Chargers ranked No. 1 overall (204.5 yards a game), No. 1 in rushing (66.5) and No. 1 in passing (138.0).

But just as Smith realized that day first day of mini-camp with 70 cameras pointed at him that he wasn’t in Salt Lake City anymore, he isn’t a rookie anymore. His teammates predicted he would mature quickly into a veteran. Opponents are learning that’s true, even without Reggie Bush lined up behind him.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com..

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.