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Offense Ready for the Unknown

Posted Aug 9, 2012

It’s been more than six months since Alex Smith and the 49ers have played a game at hallowed Candlestick Park. On Friday, the 49ers quarterback will lace up his cleats in San Francisco once again, as his team opens the preseason schedule with a 6 p.m. kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings.

Though Smith has yet to set foot in the storied stadium since last season’s heartbreaking NFC Championship game loss, driving past Candlestick has evoked emotions from the starting quarterback.

 “It’s the ‘Stick. It’s such a unique place,” Smith said. “There’s so much history there and obviously we had such a great run last year. For me, hosting the last playoff games was really special.”

There will only be two more seasons of football at Candlestick Park and Friday will mark the first game action of 2012. Free agents like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Leonard Davis and rookies like A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James are eager to play in front of the 49ers Faithful for the first time.

Michael Crabtree will also play in his first preseason game since the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Coach Jim Harbaugh declared Crabtree and fellow 49ers veteran Ted Ginn Jr., to be the starting receivers on Friday, but the first unit is expected to play limited snaps to begin the game.

That doesn’t mean Smith will tune out once he steps off the field. The eighth-year veteran will intently watch his backups, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzien, as they get reps in game-time situations.

“All those guys work really hard and put a lot of time in,” Smith said. “It’s a big deal for them. Preseason, there’s a lot on the line. There is for all of us, but obviously for them it’s a chance to go out there and play real football. Whistles aren’t blown early and plays are going to continue on.”

The quarterbacks have been able to keep their jerseys clean throughout camp, but last year’s NFL sack king, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (22 sacks), and his teammates will try to change that. Above all, Smith and the 49ers are looking forward to the change of pace and change of jerseys on the other side of the ball.

“Just to be out there on the football field and going against someone else,” Smith said. “When you’re going against our defense, you’re seeing the same looks a lot of the time and how they’re playing us. All the sudden now we’re going against someone new. There’s the unknown factor.”

Second-string quarterback Colin Kaepernick played sparingly in his rookie season out of Nevada but figures to get plenty of playing time on Friday night. Smith said he’s especially eager to watch Kaepernick and Tolzien, who will make his 49ers debut in a game setting after spending all of last preseason with San Diego.

Kaepernick has shown great confidence in his ability throughout his first year in the NFL and Jim Harbaugh is also eager to witness his young player’s development.

“We have him prepare like a starter,” the reigning NFL Coach of the Year said. “We’d be very confident if Colin went into the game or started a game.”

Collectively, Harbaugh is looking for cohesion among his units. Individually, there are players him and his staff will like to keep his eye on. Alex Boone and Davis, two members of the offensive line, will surely be watched closely by the coaching staff as they compete for the starting right guard position.

While Boone has earned the lion’s share of the first-team reps at right guard throughout training camp, Davis will make his 49ers debut since recently signing a one-year deal as a free agent. Despite being a former No. 2 overall draft pick with 11 years of experience and three Pro Bowl berths to his name, the 6-foot-8, 375-pound Davis isn’t expecting anything to be handed to him.

“He’s a guy that I feel like has checked his ego and come to work every single day no matter what’s asked of him,” Smith said. “Whatever it is, he’s willing to jump in there and get the reps and take advantage of it. He’s been a great addition.”

Then there’s the case of Anthony Dixon. It will mark his third professional preseason, but Dixon’s first as an option at fullback.

Given the logjam at running back – with newcomers James and Brandon Jacobs joining Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter – Dixon approached the coaching staff about expanding his role on the offense this offseason. Dixon suggested the idea of taking snaps at fullback and has earned playing time there in camp.

“He takes a lot of pride in his personal performance,” Harbaugh said. “Now he’s got two roles, three roles – multiple roles when you consider what he does on special teams as well. But he’s doing a fine job.”

Preseason Live: San Francisco 49ers

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