Quarterback Smith gets another shot with Niners

Alex Smith gently cradled the football in his right arm as he

waited his turn to throw – getting going on the field at last, yet

another fresh start with his only NFL team.

Smith is back behind center for the San Francisco 49ers, seven

months after this scenario seemed like such a longshot for the 2005

No. 1 overall pick out of Utah.

The embattled quarterback was booed and benched, cheered and

promoted once more. Smith stuck in there when many hoped he would

just go away for good. He stood his ground during a sideline spat

with former coach Mike Singletary last October.

First-year coach Jim Harbaugh wanted Smith to return and be the

starting quarterback in a new regime. General manager Trent Baalke

was willing to take one last shot on him, too.

And with the NFL lockout, the QB decided his safest bet was to

stay put with the one franchise he knows.

The 27-year-old Smith, a new father with a newfound energy for

football under Harbaugh’s guidance, practiced for the first time

Thursday night since signing a $5 million, one-year deal as a free

agent last week.

”A new day, absolutely,” Smith said. ”I was pretty anxious,

pretty jacked up. It didn’t help having to watch for basically a

week. You get tired when you can’t do anything. You’re champing at

the bit.”

There was Harbaugh with a watchful eye as No. 11 went about his

business. It was Smith who gathered his teammates together for

structured workouts this summer at nearby San Jose State – deemed

”Camp Alex” – and Harbaugh sure appreciated the initiative. Even

over the past week when he couldn’t practice, Smith found guys to

throw to on the college campus.

”He did a nice job, like he’d been practicing for about eight

practices, really, with the command of the offense, moving the team

in and out of the huddle,” Harbaugh said. ”He just jumped right

in and started competing. … He is game and ready for the

challenge.”

Smith knows it’s time to finally put together the kind of season

he has long hoped for – that the fans have long hoped for since the

49ers drafted him. His tenure so far has been a rollercoaster to

say the least.

He will be a backup again in a hurry if things don’t work out

this time.

Harbaugh is counting on a comeback by Smith as the coach

prepares to turn around this once-proud franchise.

”He’s excited to come back,” offensive lineman Tony Wragge

said. ”Time to roll.”

Smith passed for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and

10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was

sacked 25 times. The 49ers fully expected to win the NFC West but

instead finished 6-10 after a surprising 0-5 start and haven’t had

a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.

Smith took over the starting job midway through 2009 and was

entrenched as the starter for Singletary heading into last year.

But he separated his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at

Carolina, and Singletary turned to 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy

Smith for the next five games – even after Alex Smith was healthy.

Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, then it was Alex Smith’s turn

again for two games, including a commanding win over eventual West

champion Seattle.

After a flop at San Diego, Singletary turned back to Troy Smith

for a must-win game with the Rams on Dec. 26. That 25-17 loss cost

the coach his job with one week to go. Jim Tomsula, serving a

single-game stint as interim head coach, went with Alex Smith for a

win against Arizona in the season finale.

Now, he has to hold onto the starting job this time, with rookie

second-round pick Colin Kaepernick right behind and determined to

make an immediate impact.

”This is absolutely wide open,” Smith said. ”It’s a new

coaching staff. They’re evaluating all of us.”

Smith, who took the majority of the snaps with the first-team

offense Thursday, has played for a different offensive coordinator

each year.

Perhaps he is more well rounded these days.

He welcomed son, Hudson, on May 11. Before training camp began,

Smith was as busy handling overnight feedings with the baby as he

was learning Harbaugh’s extensive West Coast offense. The coach

handed over his playbook to Smith during the spring – on the one

day the lockout was lifted in late April after the draft – in a

sign of good faith that the sides would indeed reach agreement on a

new deal.

”I’ve always felt supported here,” Smith said. ”Obviously, a

new coaching staff and a new way of doing things. We’re jumping in.

We’re all aboard.”

It is Smith’s time to prove himself again.

”I think the odds are set on Alex at the moment,” tight end

Vernon Davis said. ”I don’t think there’s really too much

competition at the moment.”

Smith has seen just about everything in six seasons as a

pro.

In 2007, he started the entire preseason and the first four

games before injuring his throwing shoulder. He sat out the next

two games, then tried to return and played three ineffective

outings in constant pain. He was sacked seven times in those three

games – all losses – and that was it. He eventually had surgery in

December, well after he wanted to get the procedure, but going on

then-coach Mike Nolan’s preferred schedule. Smith missed the entire

2008 campaign.

In October 2009, Smith took over for Shaun Hill and threw for

2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns, but also had 12 interceptions and

was sacked 22 times for 134 lost yards.

He insists he has grown and matured through each step forward

and each one back through it all.

And if Harbaugh has his way, the former NFL

quarterback-turned-coach will be able to bring out the best in

Smith, turn the 49ers into a winner again and the rest will all be

forgotten.

”It definitely creates a confidence when that guy is in the

huddle and has been there before and knows the scheme inside and

out,” Harbaugh said. ”And he’s a very smart guy.”