SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Alex Smith proved he can make all the throws during practice Wednesday, and he claims his injured right shoulder is ready to take the hits.

The only thing standing between the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and his old job is coach Mike Nolan, who will wait a little longer before choosing a starter for Sunday's game against New Orleans.

Smith took every snap with the 49ers' first-team offense Wednesday, his first full day of team practice since separating his shoulder on the third play of San Francisco's 23-3 loss to Seattle on Sept. 30. Smith looked strong and confident, showing little of the indecision that factored into Nolan's decision to keep him on the bench last weekend.

"It felt good to be back out in the huddle and not sitting back and watching," Smith said. "As the day went on, my arm felt better and better, and I think it will feel even better (today). Getting out there today is definitely a good step."

Though Nolan didn't announce a starter, he said Smith will start if the third-year pro is able to suit up. Smith seems more than ready to return — and just in time.

The 49ers (2-4) have lost all three games since his injury, with Trent Dilfer struggling as much as the rest of their offense. Dilfer had a hand in four turnovers in the Niners' loss to the New York Giants, and even fans who called for the veteran's promotion when Smith struggled earlier in the season were longing for Smith's return.

Smith also can't wait to get back in action at a key point in the 49ers' season. If San Francisco's four-game losing streak goes on much longer, the club will be headed for its fifth straight winter out of the playoffs.

"I know I feel it, but it's part of every guy's responsibility on this team to keep us together," Smith said. "You have to shorten your focus — really focus on yourself, and focus on the now, and really getting better and improving. We're doing it."

Smith didn't get the full benefit of a normal practice Wednesday because running back Frank Gore, top receiver Darrell Jackson and offensive linemen Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings all sat out. Gore is expected to play Sunday despite a sprained ankle, while Jackson has a strained quadriceps.

Though Smith statistically didn't fare much better than Dilfer early in the season, the 49ers won twice with the former No. 1 draft pick in charge. He seems to be the best hope left for an offense that's cracked 200 yards just twice in six games while ranking at the bottom of the league in most statistical categories.

"I think we're right there, but we haven't taken that last step," said receiver Ashley Lelie, who finally got off the 49ers' bench for a 47-yard catch last week. "Last week we made some good plays down the field. We just have to keep plugging and keep fighting, and we'll get there."