Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh talks to the media during an NFL football press conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, July 25, 2011.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jim Harbaugh is suddenly experiencing all the anxiety that comes with being a first-year NFL coach. One who has been forced into hurry-up mode because of the lockout.
This isn't so different from his Stanford days, preparing college players in a matter of weeks. Just higher stakes, of course.
After the national hype surrounding his hiring more than six months ago — he was wooed away from the Orange Bowl-winning Cardinal on a $25 million, five-year deal to replace the ousted Mike Singletary — Harbaugh finally gets to begin for real with a franchise counting on him to turn things around at last. And right away after the embarrassment of eight straight seasons without a winning record and no playoffs since 2002.
"Hello, it's on," a smiling Harbaugh declared Monday upon taking the podium in the team's defensive meeting room. "Yeah, I'm nervous. I'm worried. That's a part of my job to be that way. Me personally, it keeps me on my toes. Anxious, all those feelings, to get started and get going. That's the good news: We can now start."
As one of a handful of rookie head coaches, the former NFL quarterback also will be a mentor to the QBs. Among one of the team's first orders of business in a busy week will be bringing back 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick and free agent Alex Smith.
The incumbent Smith, who gathered players together this summer for what was deemed "Camp Alex," has been declared by Harbaugh as the favorite to win the starting job. That after Smith struggled through an inconsistent season and fell out of favor with Singletary last year and wasn't even expected to be back with his only team. Everything changed with the work stoppage and the delay of free agency.
Smith will compete in camp with rookie second-rounder Colin Kaepernick, the former Nevada star who is coming off surgery on his lower left leg. David Carr is the other quarterback in the mix.
The 49ers can begin negotiating with free agents as soon as Tuesday morning, when rookies and undrafted free agents will begin signing their contracts. Other players on the roster can also report Tuesday, but must first take a physical before working out at the team facility. Smith could agree to terms on what is a reported one-year deal but must wait until Friday's first day of free agency for it to become formal with the league.
"My mind is made up. It's been made up for a long time. I'm not going to wait for anything," Smith said earlier in the day following a workout at nearby San Jose State. "I'm ready for this to start. I'm just waiting for that opportunity. I'm sure it'll be pretty quick. I'm sure it'll move pretty fast."
There are so many questions at this stage, such as what kind of shape players will be in when they report to team headquarters Thursday ahead of Friday's first practice that will be helmets-only. Padded practices start Sunday.
In Harbaugh's case, there will be plenty of meeting and greeting to do in the early days. He estimates there are between 10 and 20 players he is yet to see in person. He has spoken to a number of his players by phone, and spent much of Monday checking in with them.
"It feels more like football talking to those guys, even on the phone," said Harbaugh, hired back on Jan. 7. "I can't tell you how good it's going to be having those guys in the building, face to face, knee to knee, smelling their breath, just getting to know them, let them get to know me. That's what I'm looking most forward to."
Running back Frank Gore is one of the many players Harbaugh is eager to see. San Francisco will need a big comeback year from Gore, a two-time Pro Bowler who went down with a season-ending fractured hip in a Monday night game at Arizona on Nov. 29. Gore, who avoided surgery, ran for 853 yards and three touchdowns in his sixth NFL season and caught 46 passes for 452 yards and two TDs. Gore's 24 100-yard rushing games are the most in 49ers franchise history.
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Closely monitoring players will be paramount.
"Everybody's got to do just a great job of teaching and understanding where guys are," Harbaugh said. "Because guys are going to come in tiptop shape, there's going to be some guys that come in close to tiptop shape and you just don't know. There's the unknown with every single guy on your team, with every rookie free agent, drafted guy, that you sign. You just don't know.
"So the idea of the unknown, now you know why I'm nervous. You know why I've got some angst on a lot of different fronts."