SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Alex Smith raised both arms then clapped his hands after a long completion to Brandon Jones. Sure, it was only the first full day of training camp for the San Francisco 49ers, yet the quarterback had reason to celebrate after several miscues only minutes earlier.
A bonus: coach Mike Singletary watched the nice play from close by.
These days, Smith calls out the cadence with a voice of authority and carries himself in the pocket with a poise that signals he is in charge again. At last.
What a change from training camp a year ago, when the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick began as the backup to Shaun Hill — only to unseat him as the starter come late October.
Smith hasn't been entrenched as the top guy for the 49ers at the onset of the preseason since the beginning of his tumultuous 2007 season. Without the pressure of fighting for a job, Smith is noticeably more comfortable with his situation now. Leading San Francisco back to the playoffs after a seven-year drought is all he cares about.
"When you're going through a competition like that, you're really ingrained to you and the other guy and what's going on between you two, and that's kind of it," Smith said of his 2009 training camp mentality. "You kind of have that singular focus on that.
"Now, it's different. My focus is to do every single thing we can to get ready for opening day. It's easy for teams to just endure this, just to go through this, 'Hey, we're going through this time with the pads, it's not fun, two-a-days.' It's easy just to go through the motions and not get better."
Singletary has been declaring Smith to be the starter all offseason, even after the 49ers signed veteran David Carr to be their No. 2.
Singletary expects Smith will only become more comfortable as the Sept. 12 season-opener at Seattle nears.
Smith is thrilled with his status — and he's saying all the right things, too.
"The expectations have definitely risen. We all expect so much more, expect more success," Smith said. "This is an entirely new year. We haven't accomplished anything."
This camp, Smith has one of his top targets in uniform: second-year receiver Michael Crabtree, the 10th overall pick in 2009 who didn't sign until early October last year. He missed all of camp.
Crabtree and Smith expect to get a lot of quality work in this month.
"We need that chemistry," Crabtree said. "Just working with Alex, just trying to get better. I feel like this offseason, we really hit it hard. I could have went harder, but sometimes you have to take what they give you. I feel like me and Alex, we really clicked this summer and we're looking forward to really doing something this training camp."
Smith started all preseason and the first four games in '07 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.
All that drama seems a distant memory to Smith, now a mature NFL veteran.
"I have faith in our quarterback," said Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, who's coming off a career year. "He's confident. He's a leader. When I look at Alex, I look at him as a leader and someone who just wants to be successful. He wants to be successful real bad. He just wants it. That's what we need around here. We need a quarterback to step up and take control. I think he's doing a good job. He's definitely working toward it."
All the work Smith did this offseason with other receivers like Crabtree could put the 49ers offense in a strong position at this stage — though Singletary won't go that far, not this early in the preseason. There were plenty of mistakes Monday.