FOOTBALL: 49ers’ Harbaugh says ‘there’s some separation’ in quarterback competition


Three days after saying there was no


leader in the competition to be the 49ers’ starter, Harbaugh on
Tuesday said Alex Smith had begun to peel away from rookie Colin
Kaepernick in recent practices.
By Matthew Barrows – McClatchy Newspapers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jim Harbaugh says he’s starting to see some clarity in the 49ers’ Nos. 1 and 2 quarterback jobs. The No. 3 position, however, remains as fuzzy as ever.

Three days after saying there was no “clear-cut” leader in the competition to be the 49ers’ starter, Harbaugh on Tuesday said Alex Smith had begun to peel away from rookie Colin Kaepernick in recent practices.

“There’s some separation there,” the coach said. “… He’s had eight practices. I could really go back the last three, four, five practices, and it’s just solid – getting better, getting better every practice. Very encouraging.”

Finding a veteran to be the third quarterback has been more problematic. Harbaugh revealed Tuesday that the team entered free agency with a target in mind.

“We had a guy there in free agency, and it didn’t work out,” he said.

That guy likely is former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who said on KJR radio in Seattle on Monday that his choice came down to the 49ers and Titans.

“San Fran would have been attractive for a whole bunch of reasons,” said Hasselbeck, who is currently the starter in Tennessee. “And that offense, I believe, is pretty similar. My man Bobby Engram (a former Seahawks wide receiver) is up there coaching wide receivers. I felt good about that, but at the end of the day, I think my conversation with the head coach and the offensive line here (in Tennessee) … a lot of stuff just felt really good about it.”

Hasselbeck received a three-year, $20 million deal from the Titans. Had he signed with the 49ers, he would have competed for the starting spot, not settled for the role of third quarterback.

Harbaugh insisted the 49ers did – and still do – have a plan for the No. 3 position, but that the player they bring in has to be “the right guy and the right fit for our situation here.”

The 49ers on Monday worked out Daunte Culpepper, who played for the Mountain Lions last year, for that role, and Harbaugh said “a few other guys” may visit in the coming days. He would not rule out the 49ers eventually signing Culpepper, 34, but a deal does not appear imminent.

As for Smith, the quarterback said the improved outings in recent days simply were the culmination of practice repetitions.

As an example, he cited two passes he threw to wideout Braylon Edwards on slant patterns in Friday’s exhibition opener against New Orleans.

The first was thrown behind Edwards incomplete. The second was on target for 12 yards and a first down. The difference, Smith said, was that the 49ers hadn’t practiced the first route very much before Friday.

“The second one is something we repped a little more and was pretty easy to hit,” he said.

While Harbaugh has called Smith’s battle with Kaepernick a competition, Smith has received the lion’s share of the work with the first unit since joining training camp practice.

Kaepernick took a few snaps behind the first-team offensive line Tuesday, but struggled during one stretch when he went 0 for 4. To be fair, one of the passes was dropped.

Still, the rookie didn’t seem bowed by the news that Smith had taken a lead.

“You’d always love to get more reps with the first team,” Kaepernick said. “Right now, he’s the veteran. I’m just biding my time trying to get better and work myself into that spot.”

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