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SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Alex Smith wiped the shaving cream from his eyes and mouth, shook his head balefully and trudged to the showers, with fellow San Francisco quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Shaun Hill laughing in his wake.
So maybe the former No. 1 draft pick isn't winning a training-camp battle of practical jokes, but the third-year pro is showing much sharper competitive spirit on the field, where he believes two years of these hard knocks have left him poised to lead the 49ers back to the playoffs.
''I really feel like I'm back to playing football,'' Smith said. ''I know what I'm supposed to be doing. The last couple of years, there were a lot of uncertainties going into the season, going into camp. It's hard to deal with when you don't understand what's ahead of you.''
Smith's NFL career has been spent on a dangerous learning curve ever since he left the University of Utah early in 2005 to become the unlikely top choice in the draft. He had a rocky rookie season, throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown pass for an awful team, and took plenty of lumps while taking every snap for the improving Niners last season.
With those two years of tough times behind him, Smith has felt more prepared for his third campaign.
''A lot of things I'm more comfortable with, but at the same time, I have much higher expectations of myself and this team,'' Smith said.
Those expectations include a postseason berth for the 49ers, who went 7-9 last season in their fourth straight losing campaign. Smith took every snap for the 49ers last season, the first quarterback in franchise history to do so. He passed for 2,890 yards, battling through inconsistency before the most memorable performance of his career so far: A fourth-quarter surge in a 24-14 victory at playoff-bound Seattle last December.
San Francisco coach Mike Nolan knew his franchise's hopes for the near future rested on his first draft pick, so he kept Dilfer in a mentoring role even when Smith struggled. That patience seemed to pay off.
''You can feel the job starting to click for him, obviously,'' Nolan said. ''He's more confident with his teammates, and he's making good decisions. . . . We had confidence that he would get to this point, because he's a hard worker. Good things happen for those types of guys.''