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August 16, 2012
Expert opinion: Harbaugh heaps (more) praise on QB Smith

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Last year Alex Smith was elite. This year he's an expert.

This, according to Jim Harbaugh, who today noted Smith's excellent week of practices and said that the quarterback has mastered the 49ers' playbook.

"He already has great ideas, he's already creative, already very knowledgeable on how to use everything in the system," Harbaugh said of Smith. "I think after a year, you really know (an offense). But it takes about two years to become a real expert at it in the quarterback position. But he's cut that in half."

The comment is significant because it touches on the point Smith's former coach, Urban Meyer, made after Smith was drafted No. 1 overall in 2005. Everyone, of course, remembers Meyer saying that Smith would be "non functional" until he completely learned the system. After that, he would flourish, Meyer said.

"He is so careful with the ball," Meyer said at the time. "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."

Smith, meanwhile, sloughed off Harbaugh's praise, saying only that his expertise "is better than it was a year. I feel like I've progressed. When you play quarterback, I feel like you're always working to get better and working to learn. It's never-ending."

Asked, however, if he knows this offense better than any previous NFL offense, he was more absolute. "Yeah, for sure. No question," he said. Until this season, Smith has had a different offensive coordinator every year he was in the league.

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Perhaps the biggest 49ers news of the day: Aldon Smith walked out to observe practice Thursday and he didn't have a cane or a crutch. In fact, Smith didn't have a limp, a sign that his hip pointer was healing nicely. Smith could hardly walk hours after the injury occurred last week.

That said, both he and fellow starting OLB Ahmad Brooks appear unlikely to play Saturday in Houston. Brooks has missed every practice since Sunday. In addition, rookie Cam Johnson has not been on hand this week.

Harbaugh said that newcomer OLB Ikaika Alama-Francis is permitted by league rules to play Saturday but wasn't sure if he would get into the game. Parys Haralson and Eric Bakhtiari likely will start and Kourtnei Brown and Kenny Rowe would back them up.

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Another newcomer, tight end Joe Sawyer, also is likely to play now that Nate Byham has been waived and Delanie Walker is injured. Sawyer, who is a huge 49ers fan (he was watching clips of Vernon Davis before the 49ers called), practiced for the first time today. "So far, he moves around and looks the part," Harbaugh said of the 6-3, 255 pounder. "And he catches the ball and runs like a guy that belongs at this level. He's getting a late start at it, but it's an opportunity, and he's got a fighting chance. We'll see how things transpire."

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Harbaugh said the healthy players who sat out Friday's game against Minnesota - Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Mario Manningham - would play Saturday.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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