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QB Alex Smith making big strides in 49ers offense
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SANTA CLARA (AP) — Alex Smith is an expert. So says Jim Harbaugh, and he's the one who truly matters on this topic.

Harbaugh figures it typically takes a quarterback two full seasons in a new offense to become a so-called expert.

In the case of Smith, however, he's already right there if you ask the coach of the 49ers (No. 4 in the AP Pro32).

Smith got a chuckle out of hearing that the reigning NFL Coach of the Year was dishing out such high praise after practice Thursday, and he hardly believes he has come close to mastering Harbaugh's unique version of the West Coast offense.

"No, no, no," Smith said. "Not at all. A lot to learn."

While Harbaugh said his starters might play more in the team's second preseason game Saturday at Houston (No. 6), he has already seen plenty from Smith on the field to be confident in his play-caller as his second training camp winds down.

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

It has certainly helped to be mentored by the former NFL quarterback, Harbaugh, and to play under the same offensive coordinator — Greg Roman — in consecutive seasons for a change. The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick out of Utah, Smith worked under a different offensive coordinator in each of his first seven NFL seasons.

Smith thrived under 15-year quarterback Harbaugh last year and helped lead the franchise to its first postseason berth and winning record in nine years.

What Smith will say is that he's more comfortable in this offense than any other he has been in during his career — and he has only played for one other offensive-minded head coach in Norv Turner.

"It always just comes down to the details," Smith said. "It's not drawing up something on a white board or on a piece of paper. It's not the X's and O's. It's all the little details of the execution, what's really going on on the field, all the little things. I think the other part of it is just getting a good understanding of intent, getting a great feel for (Roman) and why we're calling stuff and what we're trying to do and what we're trying to get out of it. I feel I'm better at handling those situations."

If Smith can be just as steady as he was a year ago with perhaps a few more big plays sprinkled into the mix, the defending NFC West champion 49ers have every reason to believe they will be in the hunt for a Super Bowl again as many expect them to be. San Francisco lost 20-17 in overtime of the NFC championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

The 28-year-old Smith threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions as San Francisco went 13-3 to win its first division title since 2002.

Harbaugh can already tell Smith is clicking with newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in the upgraded receiving group.

"It's better than it was a year ago," Smith said, referencing the lockout-shortened offseason of 2011. "I feel like it's progressed. When you're playing quarterback, I feel like you're always just working to get better and working to learn. It's never-ending."

Five times Smith rallied his team from behind, including four of those away from Candlestick Park to help the Niners go 6-2 on the road. His 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining in the NFC division playoffs lifted the 49ers to a 36-32 victory against Drew Brees and the favored Saints.

In March, Smith was rewarded with a new three-year deal that pays him $8 million per season. What a change and transformation for Smith given he's the guy who was booed by the home fans for so many years.

"It's not on any particular day or date or throw or play. It's just been a process," Harbaugh said. "By the time we get here next year, he'll have well passed me."

Running back Frank Gore, Manningham and defensive lineman Justin Smith are scheduled to play Saturday against the Texans after sitting out the first preseason game while healthy.

Harbaugh doesn't plan to change much as the team transitions soon from training camp work toward the grind of the regular season.

"The breaking of the camp mode, we don't subscribe to that," Harbaugh said. "We keep right on going. There's nothing really to break to. We're here."

Notes: LB Aldon Smith, who injured his right hip in last Friday's 17-6 exhibition win over the Minnesota Vikings, walked out to practice to watch and looked strong moving without his usual cane. Smith had 14 sacks last year as a rookie. ... The 49ers waived/injured TE Nate Byham, a sixth-round draft pick in 2010 who missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. ... Harbaugh didn't rule out new OLB Ikaika Alama-Francis playing in Saturday's game, but "Will he play? We'll see."