QBs center of attention in Niners-Raiders game

QBs center of attention in Niners-Raiders game

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By JOSH DUBOW AP Sports Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- JaMarcus Russell and Alex Smith entered the NFL under similar circumstances as highly touted quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall with the task to rebuild once-storied franchises from the Bay Area that had fallen on hard times.

Going into their first meeting in the exhibition opener between the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders on Friday night, their situations couldn't be much different.

Russell will start for the Raiders in front of the home crowd at the Coliseum, beginning his first full season as Oakland's franchise quarterback after a rookie year marred by a lengthy contract dispute.

A full season of Russell at quarterback gives the Raiders hope that they will reverse a five-year losing trend. Russell has impressed in offseason workouts and practices but he needs to show he can do it in games now.

"They want to see it on the field," he said. "We go through it in practice every day. That's the presence that a quarterback has with his team and I think it's coming along."

Smith will begin the game on the bench, watching journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan take the first snaps for the 49ers. Smith is locked in three-player competition for the starting job in San Francisco with O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill.

O'Sullivan will play the first quarter and possibly into the second before handing the reins over to Smith. Hill will finish the game out for San Francisco.

Coach Mike Nolan stressed that the playing rotation is not necessarily an indication of which direction he'll go when the season begins. Nolan said he knows more about Smith and Hill, who were both here last year, so he wants to see O'Sullivan play.

"J.T. O'Sullivan has done a very good job, as the other guys have," Nolan said. "But more than anything else, I just want to see him in a game situation."

Nolan has seen good and bad from Smith over the past three years. Smith struggled through seven games as a rookie starter in 2005 before becoming the full-time starter the next season. He led the Niners to a 7-9 record that raised expectations for last season.

But Smith injured his shoulder early and then had a public blowout with Nolan during a season in which he completed only 48.7 percent of his passes with four interceptions and two touchdowns in seven starts.

Now Smith is working with the fourth offensive coordinator of his career in Mike Martz. Smith's best season came in 2006, when he also played for a noted coordinator in Norv Turner.

"What you realize about this offense is it's constantly evolving," Smith said. "We're always putting new things in, looking to change things and getting better and better. There's so much detail that goes into this, and I'm just getting more and more of it."

O'Sullivan and Hill have much thinner credentials.

O'Sullivan has thrown just 26 career passes and has never started a game in the NFL after being a sixth-round pick out of UC Davis in 2002. But O'Sullivan has a better knowledge of the offense after working with Martz last year in Detroit and impressed Nolan with how he adjusted plays in a joint practice against the Raiders on Monday.

"He did a nice job of that the other day," Nolan said. "I also thought the other guys did a pretty good job of that, but that is one of the things I saw a few times where he improvised and made a couple of plays. I am pleased with all three quarterbacks though. So it's good competition, but I am pleased with all three."

Hill, an undrafted free agent, made his only two career starts late last season when he led the Niners to wins over Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.

Russell didn't get the chance to show much as a rookie. He played catch-up after missing all of training camp before signing his $61 million contract three days after the season began.

When the Raiders played their first exhibition game a year ago, Russell was back in Atlanta working out and trying to focus on what he was missing.

"It was hard for me to watch knowing I was supposed to be there," he said.

Russell didn't step on the field until December, playing as a reserve in three games before starting the season finale against San Diego. Coach Lane Kiffin named him the starter for 2008 soon after Russell's rookie season ended.

Russell showed signs of what the Raiders hope will come in the future when he completed 23 of 31 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers.

Russell has shown inconsistency typical of a young quarterback in training camp, where he has shown off impressive physical skills and the ability to check down when receivers aren't open down field.

"He's doing exactly what we want him to," Kiffin said. "I do think we have a very good secondary, so there's a number of plays where our guys are covered up. ... We're playing a lot of young receivers, so I think the quarterback is doing exactly what we want and we'd like to get open more often for him."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-08-07-08 1702MDT

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