SANTA CLARA, Calif. (April 12, 2005) -- Alex Smith still seems a bit surprised to be spending the spring getting ready for the NFL draft instead of studying for his master's degree in economics.
So maybe that's why the Utah quarterback is much more pragmatic than the average college football star when discussing his pro prospects. And maybe that maturity, combined with his considerable talent, is just what the San Francisco 49ers need.
Smith visited the 49ers' training complex April 12, standing in front of the franchise's five Super Bowl trophies while explaining why he should be the top pick in next week's draft. The athletic, brainy 6-foot-4 passer has emerged as many draft experts' top recommendation for the Niners.
Though he would welcome the honor, Smith is aware of the pressure he would face as a No. 1 pick asked to start immediately at the NFL's toughest position on one of the league's worst teams -- and while playing in the shadow of Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, no less.
"Obviously, this is a young team. This is not something that's going to be turned around right away," Smith said. "We're not going to be winning Super Bowls next year, I don't imagine, although we'd like to.
"(The 49ers) are people who are driven and want to win, and I like that. They're not taking this first pick lightly. They're going to put in the work, and they're going to make the right decision, and that's something that gets me excited. I want to be a part of it, and I anticipate winning a lot of games in the future."
Smith and California's Aaron Rodgers, who will be in Santa Clara on April 13, are the two quarterbacks among the 49ers' four finalists to be the No. 1 pick. Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle visited the training complex April 11.
Smith was just another above-average junior quarterback before the Utes' undefeated season, capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory for the first non-BCS conference team in a BCS game, catapulted him into the national consciousness. He was nearly flawless as the leader of coach Urban Meyer's creative offense, going 21-1 as a starter over the last two seasons.
He had never seriously thought about leaving school early -- until nearly everything went right during Utah's dream campaign. Smith was the Mountain West Conference's offensive player of the year, and he became the first Heisman Trophy finalist from Utah after passing for 2,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
A fitting encore seemed impossible, particularly after Meyer left the Utes for Florida. So one year after earning his bachelor's degree as a sophomore, Smith headed for the NFL.
"If you'd asked me five months ago, even during the middle of the season, I wouldn't have told you this," Smith said. "There wasn't much left for me at the college level. If I had gone 7-4 or something, I would definitely have came back. But the note I ended on and what I accomplished, I achieved much more than I expected to."
Smith has auditioned twice for the 49ers in the last four weeks, including a private workout in Salt Lake City last month. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan traveled to Utah with 49ers receivers Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd so the club could watch while Smith threw to NFL players.
Smith also has visited the Cleveland Browns, who have the third overall pick behind Miami, and Detroit, which picks 10th. He worked out for Tampa Bay, picking fifth, and will visit the Dolphins later this week.
If the 49ers draft a quarterback, Nolan expects him to play this season. Smith is aware of the lumps many rookie quarterbacks have taken for bad teams, but he also doesn't shy away from one more unlikely achievement in a year full of them.
"That would be the goal for myself, to absolutely play early," Smith said. "It's the best way to learn. You can learn only so much on the sidelines. But at the same time, if I'm not playing well, if things aren't meshing right away, the possibility of being able to watch for a few games would be enticing, but I don't anticipate that. I would like to play right away."