49ers Blog and Q&A

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

March 11, 2009
2005 redux: Urban Meyer sees the future

Upon signing his new, more modest contract on Monday, Alex Smith said it was as if he was starting over with the 49ers. So I thought it would be a good time to revisit the April 23, 2005 conference call the 49ers beatwriters had with Urban Meyer just hours after Smith was drafted No. 1 overall by the team. This is the interview in which Meyer used the word "nonfunctional," an adjective that has followed Smith for four seasons. I'll let you draw your own conclusions -- and Lord knows you'll share 'em -- but after reading this it's pretty easy to assume that Meyer wouldn't advise having four offensive coordinators in four years for someone like Smith.

RE: What kind of player are the 49ers getting with the number one draft pick?

Urban Meyer: "I think he is the best football player that I have ever been around. He is one of those guys if you take his intangibles and put him at any position you will probably get the best player at that particular position. His greatest qualities are competitiveness, intelligence and work ethic. Then on top of that, he is very talented too. I am ecstatic that he was the first player picked and I'm excited that he is in San Francisco".

RE: Do you think the offense that you instituted there, do and the fact that he had to read so many things, do you think that will help him at the next level or do you think playing so much shotgun that the spread might hurt him?

UM: "I have had this discussion with many people in the last three months. I think the media and some fans, would like to think that maybe our style of offense, he ran some option, he ran maybe 5 to 6 options per game. He dropped back to pass approximately 30 times per game. Our drop back passing game is very similar to that used by some NFL teams, with the difference that at times we are operating from the shotgun. Other than that it is pretty much all the same. He is very effective thrower, whether you're in the shotgun or not. I think that the 49ers are looking at his mechanics, he throws on balance and has a very quick release, and he's extremely accurate. Can he learn to operate under center? Absolutely."

RE: A lot has been said about his intelligence and his football sense, can you talk about how quickly he was able to pick up the system at Utah and the kind of learner he was?

UM: "Well, that is the thing that is going to be interesting in San Francisco. He is an extremely quick learner. He is a guy that, however, until he understands it, he is non-functional. He is a guy that, I keep hearing how Brett Favre kind of makes something out of nothing and is a person that runs around to make a play. Alex Smith is not that kind of player. Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, he has to learn it all. He might struggle early but once he gets it, he gets it. I think it is well documented, his first spring in our offense he was not a productive player. Because he was coming from a team that ran two tight ends, I formation, and really did not have much of a passing game. Then he came into our offense, it took a minute to learn it, but once he did, obviously the rest is history and he did a great job with it."

RE: How long, do you think, will it take him to learn a pretty complicated scheme on this level?

UM: "I don't know. I don't know that system very well. I kind of studied some of the, I believe it is the west coast offense that Coach Nolan is going to put in there. I don't know enough about it. I understand it is wordy and is a fairly complicated system. I can tell you this, at the University of Utah, that he became so engrossed with the offense, that we went from a team that rarely checked and didn't put a whole lot on the quarterback, to this past season, he check protection, he checked plays and was in complete control of the offense. That is because of his intelligence."

RE: Both, you and Mike Nolan have mentioned his intangibles; do you have a story or anecdote that would illustrate that sort of thing?

UM: "Yeah, I do. When you start talking about college football, you have a 20 hour rule. You're only allowed to coach your players for 20 hours per week. Obviously in the NFL you don't have that issue and you can coach them as often and long as you need, I don't really know that, but understand that in the NFL you have as much time as you need. Alex Smith would come in on his own time and by the middle of his junior year, this past year, he was actually very involved in the game planning, because he was there all the time, on his own time. On Sunday's, that is their day off, he would come in and spend 4-6 hours with the coaches studying opponent's film. We were playing a team that had a very unique scheme, a scheme that took us quite a while to figure out. It was about midnight on Sunday night and it was one of those nights when you have the lights off and the film on for about four straight hours. I looked at my watch and I said 'I need to get these coaches out of here, because it is late and we got to get started at 6 am' when I flipped on the lights, sure enough Alex was still sitting in there. So basically he was there from one o'clock until midnight studying film with the coaches. Now if you want to talk about the intangibles of a college football player or any football player in particular, that's the intangibles that every coach is looking for."

RE: What team were you preparing for?

UM: "That was New Mexico. They ran that 3-3-5, that bizarre defense where we had a lot of protection issues, but obviously we had a great game."

RE: This was a Sunday after one of your Saturday games?

UM: "Yeah, this was a Saturday game that we had, and obviously the coaches come back and crank it up the next morning and go through it. Alex would usually sleep in, get something to eat and go to church and then come and spend some time with us. And once again he did that; he would leave once he got a handle on it. He had as much trouble as us of getting a handle on exactly, what kind of defense and protection scheme issues that you deal with from a week to week basis. It took a lot longer than normal, and that is why he was there so late with us."

RE: How dominant of a player was he at the college level?

UM: "You didn't really appreciate him because it was so fast what happened, you don't have time as a coach to reflect and evaluate your season. In the middle of the season someone said 'do you think Alex will come back for his senior season' and I looked at him and said 'of course he will' and didn't even put two and two together because you're so busy. As the season winded down, and he became a Heisman candidate, you really began to appreciate what he could do. You realized that we had the best quarterback in college football. After watching the film cut ups, in February and March, that's when coaches have time to do it after recruiting, you realize that he was one of the better quarterbacks, he is the best quarter I have ever been around, that is for 19 years, and the best one that I have seen on tape. That is including 19 years in the college game. I cannot wait to see him play and am anxious to see the development in San Francisco."

RE: What in particular sets him apart from the other top quarterbacks that you have coached?

UM: "I think his intelligence; I have never seen a player who graduated in two years, who has the knowledge and ability to pick it up. However there is a difference between intelligence, football is a game of reactions, a lot of times the 4.0's in the classroom don't carry over because football is a reaction game. He is as smart in the reaction part of it as he is when you study it. The thing that sets him apart as a player is his athleticism and accuracy. His accuracy is incredible and that was proven this year."

RE: Why do you think he will be non-functional until he fully learns the system, how do you make that line of delineation?

UM: "That's a great question, I am anxious to watch his development. He is so careful with the ball. His touchdown to interception ratio the last two years has been phenomenal. That is because, unless he knows exactly what's going on, he won't throw it. He won't just try to guess and take a shot. He has to know. That is why, early in his career, and early in our career with him, that first spring; he was not a very effective passer, because he really didn't understand. Once he understood it, there was no one better. He learns quickly though, I think that is the thing that is going to be interesting for me to evaluate. We were not allowed to spend time with him in the off-season like in the pros. So, I imagine his learning curve and his experience now will help him. He will learn much quicker, but it will take him a second because, once again, he is not a guy that you throw the ball out there and tell him, go play. He wants to know what is exactly expected of him and then he becomes a dynamite player."

RE: What is the most amazing thing you have seen him do on the football field?

UM: "I think in the game this year against San Diego State, where they had two NFL quality linebackers and their whole intent was too, we had to do formations where he was going to get hit. We at times, on purpose, would run him because he was one of those guys who would get stronger as he got hit. That is true with a lot of players. Once you get them hit and clear him up a little bit, they play better. I thought in the San Diego State game they were taking some shots on him, that were all legal, but they had one goal in mind, that was knock him out of the game. He had one of his better games, he almost threw for 400 yards and he had one of the best games I've seen a quarterback have. The more he got hit the stronger he got and that talks about his toughness and his competitiveness."

RE: Have you ever gotten mad at him and why?

UM: "Yeah I got mad at him quite often because he won't slide. At one point he was our franchise player, he was a guy, you know on offense you do get hit, and he is a 6-4 guy who wants to try to run over people and run through them. If it is three more yards to run through a guy he is going to try to get it. To be honest with you, he didn't think I was serious when I said 'were going to teach him to slide' and I want him to get down, because he knew what kind of coach I am and I know what kind of player he is. We had to get very firm with him and teach him how to get down and not take that unnecessary hit."

RE: There was one clip that they showed us, where he was next to the sidelines and didn't go out of bounds, but cut back and scored on a long touchdown run, did you get mad at him after that play?

UM: "Oh, you know Alex and I developed such a relationship that, basically he was our coach on the field. There were other times where he did step out of bounds and he made those right decisions. If it was one where there was no angle, there was pursuit and you were about to get wiped out, he would step out or slide. The one you saw, I would have cut it back too, because it was such a poor angle that the guy was coming on. Yeah, we discussed that after, but he became such a great player that we discussed it, we wanted him to slide, but we also let him play the game."

RE: How determined was he when he was, actually in the position, where he had to compete for the job early in his career?

UM: "His sophomore year, right before my first year at Utah, we started two-a-days and he started getting ready to pass the incumbent, the returning starter, and he hurt his back. He had a minor back injury that set him back about 10 days. He came walking off the field during two-a-days and I finished my media session, I turned and started walking with him. He looked at me and was extremely disappointed that he was injured and was going to have to miss a few days and it was all hindering his throwing. He looked at me and said 'coach, if I wasn't hurt this would not even be close'. That's how competitive and how much confidence he had in his ability that he would be the starting quarterback."

RE: What level of performance do you expect him to obtain in the NFL?

UM: "I don't think that is a fair question. I think a lot of it has to do with the system that he is in. I would give you my personal opinion, if that is what you're asking, I think he will play in the NFL and be a starter in the NFL for a long time. Because he is that smart and knows how to take care of himself."

RE: What is his personality like off the field?

UM: "He is a young guy, believe it or not he is a 4.0 in the classroom and he also spends a lot of time in football but he is not one of those guys who are anti-social. He is a person who does enjoy college life, but he enjoys it the right way. He is a person that has a great sense of humor; he is a person that is comfortable in settings. He's been over to my house numerous times; him and our offensive coordinator have a great relationship and he is quite often over at their house as well. He is very liked by my kid and my family. I heard a comment today by the 49ers; I think it was Coach Nolan or one of the front office people, that they want Alex to be the face of San Francisco 49ers, the new face of it. They couldn't have picked a better guy, off the field and on the field; he is exactly what you like."

-- 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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