SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -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 - not after Wednesday's brazen daylight attack left Smith's skull covered in foam.
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 smarter and more prepared for his third campaign since the first offseason workouts.
``This season, it's nice to anticipate what it's like to play a season, what it's like to go through game weeks,'' Smith said. ``It's nice to have the offense installed before camp starts. A lot of things I'm more comfortable with, but at the same time, I have much higher expectations of myself and this team.''
Those expectations include a postseason berth for the 49ers, who went 7-9 last season in their fourth straight losing campaign - but a major learning experience for both Smith and his offensive teammates.
``I think we'll be there,'' he said. ``We believe we're good enough to take that next step. We've got all the pieces in place, and no excuses.''
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 last December, and Nolan sees even more good things this summer.
``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.''
Smith's growing abilities are obvious in practice, where he commands the field with confident passes to a new crop of receivers including Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie alongside holdovers Arnaz Battle and tight end Vernon Davis. Losing favorite targets Antonio Bryant and Eric Johnson hasn't slowed his progress, according to his teammates.
``It's amazing, when you have time on your side, how much you can improve,'' said defensive end Bryant Young, beginning his 14th season with San Francisco. ``His confidence is way up there, and his understanding is so much better. You can see it on the field, but you can really see it in the huddle in practice, which is where it all starts for a quarterback.''
Though Smith's practice progress is encouraging, his learning days might not be over. With Norv Turner's departure to take over the San Diego Chargers, Smith is playing for his third offensive coordinator in three seasons: Jim Hostler, his quarterbacks coach in the past two years.
But Smith said Hostler largely kept Turner's offense intact, adding only a few West Coast concepts and terminology to the 49ers' playbook. Smith's offensive line also is back as a whole, but with the addition of talented first-round pick Joe Staley.
Smith's last two training camps ``were mostly installation,'' he said. ``It's a completely different sense out here than I've ever had with the Niners. With the guys I have out there now, I just read the defense and throw the ball.''
Despite a faceful of shaving cream to the contrary, Smith also feels like more of a veteran in the locker room, even though the 23-year-old player still might be the youngest starting quarterback in the league when the regular season begins next month.
``It's easy to speak out now,'' Smith said. ``It's awkward when you're a rookie, especially with veterans when you haven't been around, and you don't know what it's like. I found myself speaking out more often on everything. It's not as scary anymore.''

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