May Mini-Camp Wonders

May 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM

In Santa Clara, California the San Francisco 49ers under head coach Mike Nolan made a titanic transition from a mediocre type mini-camp under former head coach Dennis Erickson to a mini-camp snapping with intense physical drills and mental execution of the implementation of Mike McCarthy's West Coast Offense.

First round draft pick Alex Smith was the centerpiece of course inside this mini-camp and had reporters eyes and ears peeled for any and all deviations from the normal routines. This mini-camp highlights offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy's first look at quarterback Alex Smith in conjunction with quarterback's coach Jim Hostler.

The top priority of course is for Alex Smith to mentally understand all the aspects of the West Coast Offense and to make those distinctions on the field with precision over time.

"We've got to train him to run the offense," McCarthy said. "The first hurdle is to learn the terminology. Second will be the communication of language and huddle command, getting in and out of the huddle. The third hurdle will be at-the-line cadence and starting to run the offense. The timing and rhythm he needs to establish with his teammates is going to come with reps."

Mike McCarthy has held a quarterbacks school so to speak since March 21st and its intention is to get the roster of quarterbacks up to speed on his version of the West Coast Offense. All three returning quarterbacks in Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett have been attending the 90-miniute-a-day program.

Alex Smith is now at a distinct disadvantage in that he's only been a 49er since April 23rd, which places him far behind the regular pack of quarterbacks. Since that time Alex Smith has been in studies with the playbook that is very extensive and has been trying to come to grips with all of its fundamentals.

Smith is well known for his intensive work study habits and posting a high point grade average in school in whatever he takes on, in fact he received his economics degree from the University of Utah just two years ago.

The pressure that comes with being the No.#1 draft pick in this years NFL draft has to be monumental to comprehend, certainly Alex Smith is feeling that almost everyday now.

Mike McCarthy knows what the outside expectations are, but he cautions at what may be conceived as Alex Smith being able to come right in and perform miracles. That will be hardly the case in his opinion and wants to prepare all 49er fans for rough times ahead.

"It's very important to maintain a practical approach in the development of a quarterback, no matter where he's drafted," McCarthy said. "I understand the importance of a No. 1 pick, but it would be a disservice to the quarterback, the offense and the football team to have unreasonable expectations. It's going to be a step-by-step process."

Alex Smith led Utah to a 12-0 record last season, and he ran a spread offense that was unique in its own accord in which he lined up in the shotgun formation. Mike McCarthy will seek to erode away what Dennis Erickson taught the past two years and revert everyone back to the system that resembles the West Coast offense that Steve Mariucci implemented as 49ers coach from 1997-2002.

Both Mike McCarthy and Steve Mariucci spent some time on Mike Holmgrens staff with the Green Bay Packers. Tim Rattay as of now is the sole quarterback that played when Steve Mariucci was still coach of the 49ers.

Tim will see a variety of different looks and will have to adjust back to the old days rather than remember the throw the ball deep mentality of a Dennis Erickson type offense.

The most important point of emphasis in this mini-camp for Mike McCarthy is to teach all of his quarterbacks the meaning of proper footwork. He will be articulate in every detail and phase of each quarterbacks particular stance and drop-back exercise.

"It's important for anybody," McCarthy said. "It's important for Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett and it's important for Tim Rattay. The footwork training is different from what they've been taught in the past."

The relationship that is about to form between incumbent starter Tim Rattay and Alex Smith will be interesting to see as time unfolds. Tim Rattay missed April mini-camps because of foot soreness he suffered in the final month of the regular season last year.

He has publicly welcomed Alex Smith on to the team but made it quite clear that he intends to hold on to the starting position no matter what it takes.

"I'm going to try to get myself ready to go and help him and all the quarterbacks as much as I can," said Rattay, healthy for the first time since December.

Inside this mini-camp both Tim Rattay and Alex Smith shared repetitions with the first team with Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett picking up the remainder. Alex Smith has come into this group with a great deal of humility and a sense of awe in some aspects in that he has high expectations to play like he belongs in this lineup.

"The quarterbacks here are great guys, and they've all helped me," Smith said. "Tim has a lot of game-time experience. He's very relaxed back there and knows what he's doing. It's good to have him back there."

Tim Rattay has earned real durability concerns despite playing behind an offensive line riddled with injuries last season and many of them under-performing at that.

His ability to take a hit and get up and brush it off is obviously by now questionable at best. He will be in for the fight of his life as he attempts to hold on to the starting position.

"I'm going to compete, play as well as I can and hopefully, if it works out that I'm better, I'll be the starter," Rattay said. "That's my goal."

The NFL Network and ESPN attended Alex Smith's first workout in Santa Clara with the first team of the San Francisco 49ers. Reporters and broadcasters stretched from one end of the closed to the public field to the other. On Alex Smith's first snap in an 11-on-11 drill as a 49er, he had everyone's undivided attention.

On his very first play it turned out to be a false start, with many a rookie attending trying to sort this whole thing out on the line itself, and adjust to the voice and verbal count of Alex Smith.

On take two it was even worse in that, Smith took the snap, dropped back, bumped into his fullback and dropped the ball. Certainly the expectations are for Alex Smith to be the reincarnation of Joe Montana or Steve Young.

We cannot erase those images of excellence and glory out of our collective minds but we have to. No single person is immune to the rigors of the NFL and all of its pressures so to speak.

"I'm still just trying to get adjusted with everything," Smith said. "A lot going on for the first practice. I'm just trying to pick it up as fast as possible."

Not all was lost though in this session as Alex Smith during an 11-on-11 session, arched a high pass deep down the right sideline that landed perfectly into wide receiver Brandon Lloyd's arms. And in a seven-on-seven drill, Smith was seen throwing a pass deep over the middle to tight end Aaron Walker, and he hit Lloyd in the numbers on a slant.

Alex Smith also showed sound foot techniques in that he proved his mobility, by deftly rolling out to his right and finding running back Frank Gore along the sideline. All of the fascination is turning towards Alex Smith as he is expected to be the starting quarterback sooner rather than later.

His competition in Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett are mere obstacles to his legitimate seat as the starting entity to the San Francisco 49er throne. He's not in a battle to unseat a veteran quarterback in the likes of a Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or a Donovan McNabb.

The 49ers will not pay Smith a $20 million dollar signing bonus to see him carry a clipboard for very long. Mike Nolan wants to see what Alex Smith brings to the table in this competition and from what he's seen already he is coming away impressed.

"I'd like to bring him along quickly. I'd like to see how much he can handle," Nolan said.

"I don't want to determine myself what he can do and can't do. I want him to determine what it is he can and can't handle." "By giving him a lot, we'll learn what that is."

Mike Nolan came away from this mini-camp with good feelings on Smith's command in the huddle, especially where NFL veterans surrounded him. He called the plays correctly, which is no small chore when you're in a new system, and even had his teammates lined up in the right spots.

Alex Smith turned 21 during his first NFL mini-camp. He split two thirds of the first team snaps with starter Tim Rattay. Although Smith had a few bumps and bruises along the way he still showed very encouraging signs of being able to compete for this position.

Anyway you look at it Alex Smith is well on his way to taking command of this team in the near future. The groundwork for the quarterback competition has been laid out and Smith will go head to head with Tim Rattay for the starting position.

"I've been looking forward to this day for so long," said Smith. "It felt like it was never going to get here. It couldn't get here fast enough, and it's finally here. That's the best thing, to get out there and throw and be a part of the team."

To the wide receivers that Alex Smith throws to this mini-camp one really opened up Mike Nolan's eyes as to Arnaz Battle. Battle made early impressions as he had his first eight catches of his NFL career last season.

He has kept his head down and is working hard to prove himself as being a legitimate wide receiver option not yet fully utilized by the 49ers.

Arnaz Battle a converted quarterback to wide receiver out of Notre Dame flashed great playmaking ability in just limited duty last year. He emerged as the leading candidate for the featured "Z" position formerly held by Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.

"If anybody is performing a little more consistently, it's Arnaz Battle, but it's still pretty competitive," Nolan said. "I'd rather be saying here's a clear-cut starter at both spots, but we're not there yet."

On the last day of this mini-camp, which fell on a wet, blustery Sunday, Alex Smith closed with an outstanding performance by executing a hurry up offense.

He called some plays at the line of scrimmage in the hurry-up offense; he received other orders through a radio earpiece, of which included the last one of the three-day mini-camp, in that he scrambled away from pressure to deliver a pass right through defenders to Derrick Hamilton for a touchdown.

"You see talented people do things and they make it look easy," Coach Mike Nolan said, discussing the rookie quarterback. "That's a difficult job that he's doing out there. It was good to see him take it down the field. He didn't have a lot of glitches."

"I was just trying to make something happen," Smith said. "In that drill, you're just out there playing and not thinking too much. It felt good. If you had asked me if I was going to be able to do that two days ago, I probably would've laughed, but it's coming along quickly."

Both Alex Smith and Tim Rattay looked good in their quarterback roles at the conclusion of this mini-camp. Mike Nolan said he would have a better grasp on where the quarterbacks were in the next mini-camp slated for June. Meanwhile Smith will continue to study the playbook, look at film and perform voluntary workouts on his own.

"I'd feel comfortable playing with him, Center Jeremy Newberry said. "He's working hard and doing the right things and putting in the hours." "At the same time, he's still trying to learn the stuff and get it straight in his head, so it's hard for him to take complete control. I think we'll see more of that as he gets more comfortable in the system."

This mini-camp was a classic old style type of 49er mini-camp. The ones we saw before training camps were closed to the public and moved to Santa Clara. In this camp reporters saw players smacking into each other, Coaches could actually be heard exhorting, teaching and critiquing.

For instance: A punt coverage drill was explained to a group of would-be special teams head busters. The drill was then stopped at various points to make sure the coverage team was aligned correctly. But even after this everyone went back to the huddle, and the drill was run over and over again.

Everything moved at a rapid well directed pace. Skirmishes broke out between players feeling the sudden urges of intensity, but never got out of hand where someone got hurt. Expectations were being established right before your eyes and new standards were being set so players knew where they stood and what was and wasn't permitted.

Dennis Erickson being the clown he is was a very laid back coach one that allowed his players to set their own standards rather than set guidelines for the team itself. He was a very low-key, hands-off, let anything-go kind of baffling coach.

He was one that allowed in my mind the infrastructure of the organization to rot like an unwanted garden.

General Manager Terry Donahue was no better. He was off-site most of the time, thus no one really knew who was in charge for most of the time. Day to say routines was left without true leadership decisions or even direction.

This in essence created a leadership vacuum like never before, one that tripped up the 49ers over the years and sent it on a downward spiral into the basement of our own division.

In order to get a (2-14) team headed in the right direction great leadership is needed and that presence must be felt. Well we are getting that in mini-camps and we'll get that in every single game as well with Mike Nolan on the sidelines. Come Sept. 11th, on opening day against the St. Louis Rams the 49ers will be ready to play.

Nolan even believes that we have a chance to challenge for the division. A very lofty expectation from a team mired in muck for the past two seasons.

I can tell you one thing though and that is that every player will be on that field with a determination and intensity that has been lacking for many a season.

Mike Nolan will demand it and standards will be high. Players will know on a daily basis who is in charge and what is expected from them. I honestly wish that training camp could be a public gathering like it used to be so that we could witness this transformation from cellar dwellers to record setters.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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