Mercury News,Gary Reyes, AP Photo
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Count Alex Smith among those who find it awkward that a free agent quarterback is organizing the San Francisco 49ers workouts during the NFL lockout.
Just don't count him among those who think he will never be a successful 49ers quarterback.
Smith said Thursday he "absolutely" expects to be San Francisco's starter next season, even though he's not signed on the roster and second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is working to take his place. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick said he made the decision to return to the 49ers after speaking with new coach Jim Harbaugh and, in part, because he wants to prove he wasn't a Bay Area bust.
"That's just not who I am either to try to take the easy decision," Smith said. "I was just trying to make the right decision."
No free agent can sign with a team until the lockout is lifted.
In the meantime, Smith has made every effort to lead the only NFL team he has ever known. He spoke for the first time after a four-day informal minicamp at San Jose State that some 49ers dubbed "Camp Alex," and his stamp was everywhere on campus.
More than two dozen players, mostly on the offensive side, participated in workouts that included weight lifting, film study and on-field practices. The goal was to ease the transition during what was already going to be a difficult offseason with a new coaching staff and work to become the star quarterback so many once projected.
"That's why I'm doing this. I don't put in all this time, I don't sacrifice all this stuff to not be (the starter)," Smith said. "It's the drive in me that I have and will continue to have. I love football. I want to play this game and I've got more to prove than ever, to be honest with you."
Not everybody has been willing to accept Smith's leadership immediately.
Michael Crabtree openly challenged Smith's status as the starter earlier in the week and downplayed the quarterback's efforts to organize workouts. His comments came after Smith questioned why Crabtree wasn't at smaller, private workouts he held with receivers previously.
Smith said he called the wide receiver to apologize and that the perceived feud between them was "blown out of proportion." Crabtree participated in all the playbook studies but only one on-field practice because of sore feet from practicing with new cleats on the field turf Monday.
Smith said their personal relationship is and always has been fine, and they're working to find a rhythm on the field that has never developed.
"On the field, I would definitely say, he and I would both agree, unhappy would be an understatement with our play last year. No question," Smith said. "And he and I rely so much on each other. No question, both of us aren't happy. We know we have to play better. Both of us."
Smith certainly has major strides to make to convince fans he can be the franchise quarterback.
The 49ers haven't had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002, and inconsistency at quarterback might be the biggest reason why. He split time with Troy Smith and David Carr last season under coach Mike Singletary, and there's no guarantee he'll be any better with Harbaugh at the helm.
With the lockout threatening to cancel training camp, Smith is organizing more workouts later this month if the labor dispute continues. He admits it's somewhat weird coaching teammates, let alone being a free agent.
"Pretty strange, right?" Smith said. "It's just such a strange year. Strange times."
Smith wouldn't get into details about the conversations he had with Harbaugh before the lockout was reinstated or what convinced him that the new coach would help him be successful. But he said the two developed a level of trust — Harbaugh giving him the playbook and publicly welcoming his return, among others — that put no doubt in his mind staying with San Francisco would be the right choice.
Smith understands it won't be easy to convince 49ers fans he is the solution at quarterback. The challenge is also what made him want to take another shot in San Francisco.
"When are fans patient?" Smith said. "That's the nature of the game."
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