49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

May 29, 2008
Quarterback race is more like a marathon

In a perfect world, the 49ers will emerge from OTAs on June 20 with a distinct pecking order at quarterback. The player at the top of that order will head into training camp July 24 as the No. 1 quarterback. He'll get most of the first-team reps, he'll look fantastic in preseason games and he'll enter the season as the unquestioned leader of the team. "At this point I'm hopeful," Mike Nolan said of having a clear-cut No. 1 on June 20. "But I won't hold myself to it."

Nolan knows the reality will be messier. The question is whether we're talking Barack-vs.-Hillary messy. The 49ers quarterback competition certainly has the potential to drag on and on and on like the Democratic nomination process.

Consider this not farfetched scenario. I figure Alex Smith will take the early lead in the coaches' minds. After all, he looks great on a practice field. He's tall. He can scramble. And he has the best arm in the 49ers' quarterback stable. Nolan already has commented that Smith added seven pounds of muscle following the 2007 season and looked as physically impressive as he has seen the young passer.

Shaun Hill, meanwhile, is not going to win many best-body competitions. He doesn't have Smith's arm strength, and he has a funny throwing motion. (Though, not as funny as Mariah Carey's). That's why up until last season, Hill has been a career No. 3 quarterback. He simply hasn't been an impressive enough practice player to warrant a closer look.

Ah, but while Hill looks average in practice, he shines in games. Remember in years' past when Hill would enter a preseason game in the fourth quarter and rally the 49ers' third stringers? We dimissed those heroics because they were made against defenders who would be cut in the following weeks. Yet when Hill got a chance to play in real games last season, he looked exactly like he did in late August. He was savvy. He got got the 49ers' offense into rhythm right away. And, most important, he won games.

Which is why this quarterback competition has such potential to be a clusterfudge. Even if Smith opens a big gap during OTAs and training camp, it's easy to see Hill closing the gap when preseason games begin in early August. And unlike the Democrats, there's a third candidate to make things even murkier. While J.T. O'Sullivan won't get a lot - or any - first-team reps during OTAs, Nolan said that O'Sullivan was sharp enough in minicamp to merit consideration for the starting job when training camp begins. Which is to say, this quarterback competition promises to be a long one. "Whatever happens at the end of OTAs," Nolan said, "It's not the end of the race for anyone."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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