SANTA CLARA, Calif. (May 6, 2005) -- Alex Smith stepped all the way up to the line, barked out signals and flawlessly took the snap. An instant later, the ball was on the ground when Smith bumped into his fullback.
But just getting that first snap from under center was an accomplishment for the San Francisco 49ers' top pick during his first NFL practice.
"I've been looking forward to this day for so long," Smith said. "It felt like it was never going to get here. It couldn't get here fast enough, and it's finally here. That's the best thing, to get out there and throw, be part of the team."
Smith hopes his days will be filled with many small victories before September. He's expected to help change the fortunes of a rebuilding franchise -- and the former Utah quarterback must learn the West Coast offense while getting used to taking snaps from center after two years in an offense mostly featuring shotgun plays.
Smith worked out with Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey, who shared the starting job last season, and third-stringer Cody Pickett while head coach Mike Nolan ran his new club through a lively minicamp workout at its training complex. Smith and Rattay each got a third of the snaps, with Dorsey and Pickett splitting the final third.
Nolan won't pick a starting quarterback any time soon, but Smith -- who will celebrate his 21st birthday this weekend -- will be given every opportunity to earn his yet-to-be-completed contract from opening day.
"It will be determined by how quickly he grasps the offense," Nolan said. "It's no different for him than it is for any other quarterback. ... I'd like to bring him along quickly. I'd like to see how much he can handle. We'll expose him to the entire offense in the next month."
Smith's life has changed dramatically in the four months since Utah beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl to cap its undefeated season. After the pressure of draft auditions, contract negotiations and various celebrity commitments, he's happy to bury himself in work.
"It is very different," Smith said of his newfound fame. "It's one thing to get recognized in Salt Lake when you have your Utah football gear on. It's another thing to get recognized in a random city when you're in casual clothing. It's very different. Obviously, it comes with the territory."
Smith looked fairly sharp in his first drills, calling plays with authority and snapping most of his throws. Two fumbles aside, he showed off the impressive form that pushed him to the top of most teams' draft boards.
"To go out there today and do what he did with the first unit the first time out, that's a pretty good job," Nolan said. "To get in the huddle, to call a play, to call it right. When he was in the huddle, you never saw the huddle go, 'Come back in here, let's get it right.' Every time they came out, they came out correct."
Rattay finally is healthy after missing seven games with three injuries last season, and he doesn't intend to surrender the starting job he was given last season after four years as Jeff Garcia's backup. But Rattay, who played in a shotgun offense at Louisiana Tech before joining the 49ers, also plans to help Smith's adjustments.
"That's my goal, is to be the starter, obviously," Rattay said. "That's what I'm out here doing, trying to compete and be the starter. ... We haven't had any heart-to-hearts yet. We're just out there competing, and he's learning. We're all learning together in this thing."
Rattay passed for 2,169 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while getting sacked 37 times -- but the 49ers already have tried to improve their offensive line by signing Jonas Jennings and drafting David Baas. Rattay acknowledged he has thought about Drew Brees' Pro Bowl season with the San Diego Chargers in 2004 after the club drafted Philip Rivers.
But Smith is on fairly equal footing with the three incumbent quarterbacks because new offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy is installing a system that differs sharply from fired coach Dennis Erickson's schemes.
"If I had to list my goal, it was to come out here, forget the throws, forget everything else and just take command, show that you could be ready from a mature level," Smith said. "It won't be done in one practice. It's going to continue on through the spring and the summer. It's something that I look forward to."