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Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) pulls away from Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley (98) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

SAN FRANCISCO — Alex Smith is spending his NFL bye week on a long-planned family vacation in Las Vegas. His heart, though, is still in San Francisco where the Utah Utes face California Saturday at AT&T Park.

Utah assistant coach Brian Johnson is a close friend of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who expressed regret that schedules didn't match up this weekend.

Make no mistake, however, Smith still follows his alma mater closely.

"He's constantly watching. He'll call me after every game — so he's following," Johnson said. "He wants to be involved and know what's going on. So he's still a Ute at heart."

Johnson was Smith's backup in 2004 when Utah went undefeated, crashed the Bowl Championship Series and overpowered Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. They formed a friendship along the way and maintained it throughout Smith's ascension to the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and the twists and turns that followed in his pro career.

Things, however, are now at an all-time high.

After years of frustration, Smith is flourishing under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. He's off to the best start in his career, quarterbacking the 49ers to a 5-1 record while throwing for 1,090 yards with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions.

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"It's great. I couldn't be more proud of him and more happy for him. He's been like a big brother to me now for eight years and he's somebody that I've always looked up to," Johnson said. "It's great to see all the hard work finally start to pay off because no one works harder than he has. He's been through a lot in his career. So everything good that is happening is due and he deserves it all."

The 49ers, Johnson continued, are playing great. He's hopeful they'll keep it up, make a nice playoff run and go to the Super Bowl.

Johnson said Smith hasn't changed a bit through the years, enduring ups and downs the same way.

"He's remained the same. He's stayed humble," Johnson said. "He continues to work hard and it's finally paying off. So it's good to see and I'm real proud of him."

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