Four-man quarterback competitions? Yeah, Scott Tolzien's been there before. In fact, the guy everyone has pegged as the 49ers' No. 4 quarterback this summer was in a very similar spot three years ago.
At the time, Tolzien, a red-shirt junior at Wisconsin, was behind the returning starter, fifth-year senior Dustin Sherer, and a redshirt freshman named Curt Phillips. By the start of the season, however, Tolzien had leapfrogged both and would go on to start two straight seasons for the Badgers.
"Scott has done the best of handling and maintaining his poise and his focus throughout camp of all three of them," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said when he made the surprise decision to start Tolzien in 2009. ". . . Somebody was going to have to come out on top and Scottie is going to get that starting nod. . . . He is just a steady performer. Doesn't get rattled in any situation. He is very, very intelligent."
That description hasn't changed, and it's likely what makes him so popular with the 49ers coaching staff. In fact, Tolzien almost sounds like a coach when he speaks.
"It's a broken record, but just trying to bring it every day," Tozien said when asked about his strength as a quarterback. "As a team, that's when all the pieces come together, everyone collaboratively pushing each other - from a positional standpoint, to offense pushing the defense and everything in between."
Jim Harbaugh couldn't have said it any better.
Tolzien had a very good game against the 49ers at the end of the 2011 preseason when he was still a member of the Chargers. Since then, no one in the media had seen him throw a ball until this spring. As the No. 3 quarterback last year, Tolzien rarely took meaningful practice repetitions, and super-secretive Harbaugh closed the sessions to the media anyway.
Tolzien does not have a powerful arm, he's an inch shorter than the 6-3 at which he was listed at Wisconsin and he's the least athletic of the four quarterbacks on the 49ers' roster. But he showed very good anticipation on his throws this spring, which makes up for dips in velocity, he's very smart and he's very competitive - something that likely made him attractive to Harbaugh.
Tolzien was 16 of 23 for 226 yards with a touchdown and an interception (97.4 passer rating) in the Sept. 1 game against the 49ers despite Aldon Smith and Demarcus Dobbs wreaking havoc with San Diego's backup offensive line throughout the evening. What stood out is that Tolzien handled that adversity like a 10-year pro even though he'd only been in system for four weeks.
"That's really the great thing about the games," Tolzien said. "There's no coaches. It's 11 guys - myself and 10 other guys in the huddle trying to figure this thing out with hectic crowd noise, the play clock ticking. And at that point in time, all the coaching is on you. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. Sure, we hadn't been with each other jelling in that offense for a full year or even an offseason. But we competed ... and that's what it's always about, especially on game day."
"I think the key is being prepared," he continued. "Because like I said, the coach isn't there any more. So if a guy's got a question - that's the quarterback's job, to know what (the answer) is. It's like going into that big exam in college, and not being prepared you're shaking. You really don't know what to expect. But you walk in there having prepared for weeks, you know that whatever's going to get thrown at you, you know that you'll have an answer."
Alex Smith appears locked in as the 49ers starter. Harbaugh reaffirmed that last week, saying that Smith even widened the gap between him and his competition.
The other three spots are more closely bunched together, and the preseason games will play a big role in determining the ultimate order. One of the questions in July and August will be whether Tolzien can make a climb similar to the one he made at Wisconsin three years ago.
"Coach is always saying, 'work and don't worry,'" Tolzien said of Harbaugh. "That's just the way I'm trying to approach it. That's the best way to approach it. I was in the same position in college and it doesn't do you any good to measure yourself against the other guy on a day-to-day basis."
-- Matt Barrows