SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Alex Smith gently cradled the football in his right arm as he waited his turn to throw — getting going on the field at last, yet another fresh start with his only NFL team.
Smith is back behind center for the San Francisco 49ers, seven months after this scenario seemed like such a longshot for the 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah.
The embattled quarterback was booed and benched, cheered and promoted once more. Smith stuck in there when many hoped he would just go away for good. He stood his ground during a sideline spat with former coach Mike Singletary last October.
First-year coach Jim Harbaugh wanted Smith to return and be the starting quarterback in a new regime. General manager Trent Baalke was willing to take one last shot on him, too.
And with the NFL lockout, the QB decided his safest bet was to stay put with the one franchise he knows.
The 27-year-old Smith, a new father with a newfound energy for football under Harbaugh's guidance, practiced for the first time Thursday night since signing a $5 million, one-year deal as a free agent last week.
"A new day, absolutely," Smith said. "I was pretty anxious, pretty jacked up. It didn't help having to watch for basically a week. You get tired when you can't do anything. You're champing at the bit."
There was Harbaugh with a watchful eye as No. 11 went about his business. It was Smith who gathered his teammates together for structured workouts this summer at nearby San Jose State — deemed "Camp Alex" — and Harbaugh sure appreciated the initiative. Even over the past week when he couldn't practice, Smith found guys to throw to on the college campus.
"He did a nice job, like he'd been practicing for about eight practices, really, with the command of the offense, moving the team in and out of the huddle," Harbaugh said. "He just jumped right in and started competing. ... He is game and ready for the challenge."
Smith knows it's time to finally put together the kind of season he has long hoped for — that the fans have long hoped for since the 49ers drafted him. His tenure so far has been a rollercoaster to say the least.
He will be a backup again in a hurry if things don't work out this time.
Harbaugh is counting on a comeback by Smith as the coach prepares to turn around this once-proud franchise.
"He's excited to come back," offensive lineman Tony Wragge said. "Time to roll."
Smith passed for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and 10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 25 times. The 49ers fully expected to win the NFC West but instead finished 6-10 after a surprising 0-5 start and haven't had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.
Smith took over the starting job midway through 2009 and was entrenched as the starter for Singletary heading into last year. But he separated his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina, and Singletary turned to 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith for the next five games — even after Alex Smith was healthy. Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, then it was Alex Smith's turn again for two games, including a commanding win over eventual West champion Seattle.
After a flop at San Diego, Singletary turned back to Troy Smith for a must-win game with the Rams on Dec. 26. That 25-17 loss cost the coach his job with one week to go. Jim Tomsula, serving a single-game stint as interim head coach, went with Alex Smith for a win against Arizona in the season finale.
Now, he has to hold onto the starting job this time, with rookie second-round pick Colin Kaepernick right behind and determined to make an immediate impact.
"This is absolutely wide open," Smith said. "It's a new coaching staff. They're evaluating all of us."
Smith, who took the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense Thursday, has played for a different offensive coordinator each year.
Perhaps he is more well rounded these days.
He welcomed son, Hudson, on May 11. Before training camp began, Smith was as busy handling overnight feedings with the baby as he was learning Harbaugh's extensive West Coast offense. The coach handed over his playbook to Smith during the spring — on the one day the lockout was lifted in late April after the draft — in a sign of good faith that the sides would indeed reach agreement on a new deal.
"I've always felt supported here," Smith said. "Obviously, a new coaching staff and a new way of doing things. We're jumping in. We're all aboard."
It is Smith's time to prove himself again.
"I think the odds are set on Alex at the moment," tight end Vernon Davis said. "I don't think there's really too much competition at the moment."
Smith has seen just about everything in six seasons as a pro.
In 2007, he started the entire preseason and the first four games before injuring his throwing shoulder. He sat out the next two games, then tried to return and played three ineffective outings in constant pain. He was sacked seven times in those three games — all losses — and that was it. He eventually had surgery in December, well after he wanted to get the procedure, but going on then-coach Mike Nolan's preferred schedule. Smith missed the entire 2008 campaign.
In October 2009, Smith took over for Shaun Hill and threw for 2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns, but also had 12 interceptions and was sacked 22 times for 134 lost yards.
He insists he has grown and matured through each step forward and each one back through it all.
And if Harbaugh has his way, the former NFL quarterback-turned-coach will be able to bring out the best in Smith, turn the 49ers into a winner again and the rest will all be forgotten.
"It definitely creates a confidence when that guy is in the huddle and has been there before and knows the scheme inside and out," Harbaugh said. "And he's a very smart guy."