Nolan, Smith on better terms as 49ers begin minicamp

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A classical medley of NFL Films music blared through the on-field speakers Friday at the San Francisco 49ers' first minicamp practice. The soundtrack was another brainstorm from coach Mike Nolan, who figures his players must learn how to persevere through nonstop noise every Sunday.

The calming tones didn't soothe tight end Vernon Davis, who ripped linebacker Parys Haralson's helmet off during a fight. Yet a little music seems to be an appropriate backdrop for the start of 49ers' quarterback competition between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, who are in perfect harmony so far.

Nolan says the former No. 1 overall draft pick and the career third-stringer are on equal footing in their competition to run new coordinator Mike Martz's offense. Smith took the first snap in the morning practice session, and Hill took charge in the afternoon for a competition that's unlikely to end for at least three months.

"A lot has been made of this, but this is a natural part of this game," Smith said. "It's a competitive sport. Shaun and I have had to compete all our lives to get to this point. I would say the abnormal thing is [when] you're given something. ... We're both pretty sure. We're self-confident that we're going to go out there and get it done."

Though Smith must be considered the favorite after three stormy seasons in San Francisco, Hill went undefeated as a starter late last season in the first significant playing time of his six-year career. Hill's throwing style, body type and even field demeanor remind some of Marc Bulger, who became a Pro Bowl MVP in St. Louis under Martz's tutelage.

Add the lingering uncertainty about any tension between Smith and Nolan, and it's clear both quarterbacks have a shot.

"Both Shaun and Alex have been very positive towards the competition," Nolan said. "No one is hanging their head. They're approaching it the way I'd expect them to."

Everything seems cool between Smith and Nolan, who shared an ostentatious hug in their first public appearance since Smith's 2007 season ended with shoulder surgery and bitter words exchanged through the media. Smith felt Nolan hadn't properly backed him and misunderstood the extent of his injury, while Nolan thought Smith should keep quiet and play.

Smith is back from surgery at full strength and ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation. Just a few weeks after Nolan said Smith might be limited in minicamp, the quarterback participated in every drill and made every throw Friday.

"This is a year to start over, to kind of wipe the slate clean with Coach Martz coming in," Smith said.

Smith has started 30 games in his three seasons with San Francisco, passing for 4,679 yards, 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions while getting sacked 81 times. In addition to many hours in the classroom, Martz already has worked on Smith's throwing motion to remove a few bad habits.

Hill also is back to normal after healing the injuries to his finger and back that kept him out of the 49ers' season finale following victories in his previous two starts. The prospect of competing for a starting job is still sinking in with Hill, who re-signed with San Francisco as a free agent after the club promised an open battle.

"Every pro camp, I've been competing with the other guy they brought in," said Hill, who spent four seasons as a backup Minnesota before joining the 49ers in 2006. "There's always competition for that third and fourth [-string] spot. I guess on paper, it does look like it would be different this year, but it's all the same to me. I'm always out there trying my best."

Martz said new third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan also is in the running for the starting job in his offense, which replaces the NFL's worst unit in San Francisco last season. The 49ers finished last in the NFL in points (219), total yards (3,797), yards passing (2,320), offensive touchdowns (23), first downs (218), sacks allowed (55) and third-down conversions (31.4 percent).

The 49ers already see the difference with Martz's intricate offense, which is full of movement and extra receivers and opportunities to do the unexpected.

"The best part of minicamp is being around Mike Martz and just watching him explore things," said Davis, who apologized for his latest altercation with a teammate. "We're starting to focus on things we haven't focused on in a while, like getting the ball to guys who can make plays."