STATELINE, Nev. — As Alex Smith goes deeper into his pro football career, his circumstances are beginning to mirror what he experienced while playing for the University of Utah.
Smith played a major role in helping the San Francisco 49ers reach the NFC Championship game a year ago, a breakout season that few saw coming, given how the former No. 1 draft choice performed in his previous six NFL seasons.
But the 49ers found immediate success under new coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who once took the Indianapolis Colts to within a victory of playing in the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh provided Smith with the mentoring coach and stabilizing influence he'd been missing since playing for Urban Meyer at Utah from 2002-04. Smith compiled a 21-1 record orchestrating Meyer's spread offense and was the 2004 Mountain West Conference player of the year.
But since Smith's arrival in the Bay Area, the 49ers foundered, losing 57 of 90 games.
"Obviously a guy who played 15 years at your position, there are some good things there," said Smith, who participated in his first American Century Championship golf tournament in July at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course near Lake Tahoe. "Just as a coach, (Harbaugh) thinks everything through, thinks outside the box. He really knows what he's doing, from top to bottom. Guys have really bought in to what we're doing and how we're doing it."
Last year, Smith threw only five interceptions while tossing 17 touchdowns and passing for 3,144 yards. The 6-foot-4 signal-caller accumulated a career-high 90.7 quarterback rating.
No single reason led to his turnaround season, according to Smith.
"I feel like I've been trying to get better each and every single year and then last year some things clicked," Smith said. "I just feel like a lot of it came out last year. Really, my teammates deserve a lot of credit, and the coaches for putting us in good situations."
Reducing his turnovers was one of Smith's key areas of improvement. In four previous seasons where he served as the team's primary starter, Smith's interception total reached double digits. Last year, though, his sound decision-making kept his offense on the field longer and prevented shorter fields for opponents.
Of course, only a year earlier, many NFL analysts were wondering why Smith was still starting behind center. But the game's insiders never doubted Smith's work ethic, commitment and poise.
"I've always liked Alex," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose Cardinals split two games with the 49ers last season. "The thing I admire the most with him is that he has handled the pressure of being the No. 1 pick very well, even when things haven't gone well. So, it was nice to see him have a good year.
"I respect the way he plays and competes. I don't like facing him, but kudos to him and his team how they did."
Expectations will be significantly higher for Smith and the 49ers as they prepare for the 2012 season. The defending NFC West Division champs added free-agent wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to their offense in the offseason.
After sitting out the entire 2011 season, Moss will try to add to his stellar 13-year career that has produced 153 touchdowns and 14,858 receiving yards. Manningham helped the Giants win a Super Bowl a year ago, and fourth-year pass catcher Michael Crabtree will try to build on his career highs of 72 receptions and 874 yards.
"I'm excited for training camp," Smith said. "This is arguably (our best skill set) for sure. We have a ton of guys that can all play, and that's key in the NFL. We're so deep across the board, deep as you can be in the NFL."
A rejuvenated and confident Smith is in charge of making sure the 49ers reach their potential and win the big game it didn't last year. That responsibility isn't putting any added pressure on Smith.
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"No expectations but just getting better," he said. "We have to take the next step as an offense, as a passing unit, and try to win games, that's the bottom line … put ourselves in situations and execute when we have to execute and win some games."
Winning is something Smith relearned last year after doing it so well in high school and for the Utes, a program that Smith routinely thinks about.
"My best friend, Brian Johnson, is the (offensive) coordinator, so I follow every game I can," he said.