- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Steve Young was 28 before he became the 49ers' starting quarterback. Despite the late start, Young made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Alex Smith doesn't have the luxury of sitting. And new head coach Mike Nolan can't afford for Smith to sit. The 49ers are in transition. Nolan is trying to put a new face on this proud organization. Last year, the 49ers came precariously close to a winless season. Their two wins were in overtime, one in which they needed two touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation to tie the score.
So, at the age of 21, Smith is close to handling the position once held by Young, Joe Montana, Steve Brodie and Y.A. Tittle. Smith has already been ahead of his time. He needed only two years to earn his college degree at Utah. He was 20 when he was drafted. Now, barely at the age in which he is legally allowed to drink, Smith heads into the preseason as the starting quarterback for a five-time Lombardi Trophy-winning franchise with a legacy of great quarterbacks.
"I can't think about being the No. 1 pick; I need to play the best I can," Smith said. "I'm a rookie, but I'm a quarterback on this team. I've got to act like it. I don't need to think I'm 21 years old. When I step in the huddle, I'm the quarterback and I need to act accordingly."
And even if he tries to avoid doing so, sometimes that's acting just like a rookie.
On Saturday, Smith makes his first start, against the Raiders. As the game approaches, Smith is starting to show signs of nervousness. He talks of the reality of facing Warren Sapp at the line of scrimmage. Veteran 49ers are amused. They like him. They like him a lot. He's the future and the present, but he's so young.
"I think he's getting little bit of the jitters," halfback Kevan Barlow said. "He's a little nervous. The Raiders will talk trash to him. But he looks great overall. He takes command in the huddle. He's a very mature guy. The guy graduated in two years. He's a leader."
Smith looks the part. Around him are competent, but late-round draft pick quarterbacks Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett. Compared to them, Smith's talents are distinctively better. He has presence in the pocket. Listed at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Smith holds the ball high in his right hand. His arm is strong. His mobility gives him an edge, but what's impressive is that if the play breaks down, Smith doesn't just tuck the ball in his stomach and run.
Instead, his eyes are always looking downfield for a receiver to help him out. Though he has the speed to pick up a first down with his feet, Smith is looking for a completion. Unfortunately, the 49ers lack a slew of established receivers, and he will be doing a lot of scrambling to survive.
Smith has to walk tenderly to take control of the offense. Being the starting quarterback doesn't excuse him from the abuse of being a rookie. In the lunch room, he's still asked to sing his school's fight song. During the season, he'll be asked to bring doughnuts for the veterans. While Smith has wowed his new teammates with his abilities, he still has to win them over on the field. He can't start out ordering older players to follow his lead. He must tread lightly when he gives his instructions. Remember, he's only 21.
"I have to show silent confidence," Smith said. "I don't need to be talking about my glory days in college. I need to keep my mouth shut and stay to my business. I need to step up in the huddle, call the plays and run it."
So far, his huddles have been respectful and efficient. He's not a pushover. That silent confidence comes through when he barks out instructions.
"He has a lot of composure out there," fullback Fred Beasley said. "He's putting the ball in the right spot. When there are real bullets flying, we'll see how he reacts. He's just got to keep his head up. He's going to make mistakes, but he's got to know we are behind him 100 percent. He's got a great supporting cast. From his background, though, you can see how he handles himself. He's a good young man. I'm happy to have him on my side of the ball."
Nolan did a lot of thinking when it came to choosing between Smith and Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers played a higher level of competition, but Smith was slightly bigger and offered a few more skills. Smith's agent, Tom Condon, informed the 49ers it was going to take a bigger contract than the one given to Eli Manning a year ago if Smith was their choice.
The 49ers head coach didn't flinch. He said money wouldn't determine the 49ers' selections. He liked what he saw in Smith, both as a talent and a person.
"He's got his head screwed on right," Nolan said. "I've known Peyton Manning since he was a kid. I remember when Peyton came out. I remember thinking to myself because of his dad he had his head screwed on right. With the whole family thing, unless Peyton had some glitch in there, I thought he was going to be pretty good because he's really competitive and he's talented and smart and he's been around it. Alex hasn't been around it as much as Peyton was, but there is still an intelligence factor along with his ability. His parents did a good job with him."
From the looks of him on the practice field in camp, Smith is a mix of Young and Montana. He has Montana-like intelligence. That's the silent confidence he talks about. His knack of scrambling but looking downfield for a receiver is reminiscent of Young, the athlete with the 4.5 speed who could set up quickly and deliver an impromptu pass.
Linebacker Julian Peterson stares at Smith across the line of scrimmage and is amazed.
"Being so young, you wouldn't imagine this guy stepping in and being as good as he is," Peterson said. "He still has a long way to go. He has pocket savvy. He's not just going to sit in there. He holds the ball nice and high. When he tucks it in, he's still looking to make a pass. He's making tremendous strides."
But rookie quarterbacks face impossible challenges as starters. Not everyone will pull off the feat of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, who won 15 games (including the playoffs) as a rookie. Roethlisberger did so in part because he was complemented by a running game capable of pounding the ball 40 carries a game.
Smith doesn't have the luxury. He faces a more common scenario -- taking over a struggling franchise. The 49ers aren't going to be confused with a playoff team. Chances are, Smith will struggle to complete more than 55 percent of his passes and direct two touchdown drives a game.
That said, of the three teams that finished at the top of the draft -- the 49ers, Dolphins and Browns -- the 49ers have the most long-term hope. They made the move on the young quarterback, and barring some setback in Smith's development, they will grow with him. The faster he learns, the quicker the franchise will improve.
Nolan has full control of the organization as the coach and general manager, and he's trying to build the 49ers the right way. He hired a good staff. Mike McCarthy came from the Saints as offensive coordinator. He is one of the league's best teachers of the West Coast offense. Billy Davis has been one of the league's best kept secrets as a defensive coach. He has worked with plenty of linebackers making the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Jerry Sullivan is perhaps the league's best receivers coach.
Because he has hired such a good staff, Nolan has been able to work on projects to make the organization better. Just this week, in fact, he restructured the players' parking lot.
"You certainly want to change the way things are, and just think about this," Nolan said. "The guys just went through a 2-14 season. Imagine what they went through. In the first meeting we had, I asked how many of you guys went to the Super Bowl. The reason I asked that is because in a normal year and your team does well, you go down there and strut your stuff. You're an NFL player. Not one guy raised his hand. I said, 'If you would have been 14-2, how many would have been there?' They all started laughing because they would have been there."
A lot of that onus, at least offensively, will fall on Smith.
"I feel like I'm to a point where I can play and be somewhat successful," Smith said.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.