SANTA CLARA -- Aldon Smith's finest game in college -- the one that started to draw national attention his way -- came against an offensive lineman who would later become a first-round draft pick.
On Sunday night, Smith again matches up against left tackle Nate Solder. In 2009, Smith, as a redshirt freshman, recorded three sacks against the highly touted Solder in Missouri's 36-17 victory over Colorado.
The combination of speed and power that Smith demonstrated in making life difficult for Solder helped convince the 49ers last year to select the pass-rusher with the No. 7 overall pick. In the same draft, the New England Patriots chose Solder at No. 17 overall.
"I'm sure he's improved," Smith said Thursday. "He made it this far. He's starting, so I assume so. I haven't watched that game in a long time, but I was able to get past him and create pressure back there."
Smith has been creating pressure ever since, too. Smith has 19.5 sacks in his second NFL season to set the 49ers' franchise record. He is just three sacks shy of Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record, which was set in 2001.
In that meeting in 2009, Smith had four total tackles for loss, in addition to taking down the Colorado quarterback three times.
"I was very impressed with Aldon Smith," Solder said afterward. "He's big, tall, athletic, strong and has real long arms. We had a real tough time with him."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has confidence in Solder, who stepped in to protect Brady's blind side after the retirement of Matt Light. Solder will face one of his biggest assignments of the season against the NFL's top sack artist.
"Sure, big challenge, but at that position, those guys see them every week," Belichick said on a conference call this week with Bay Area reporters. "Smith has a good combination of skills. He's strong. He can power rush. He can rush the edge. He's quick. He's got a good up-and-under move. He's got an outside move. He's got an inside move. And he can run over those guys.
"That's three pretty good pitches right there. It's hard to block them all. Nate's a good player in his own right. He's competed against a lot of good rushers this year and last year."
The Patriots top-ranked offense offers a big challenge for the 49ers on Sunday night in Foxboro, Mass. But Smith said he is confident that the 49ers' strength will make things rough on New England, too. The 49ers already have compiled road victories against Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers and Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints.
"We can stop them," Smith said. "We've played good offenses before. This isn't our first offense we've played that has talent. Tape shows what happened. So we'll just put it back on tape again."
Smith has quickly emerged as one of the 49ers' marquee players. When NBC promoted the 49ers-Patriots game last week, they showed pictures of Tom Brady and Smith together on a graphic for Sunday Night Football.
"My friend sent me that picture, and I had just one word: 'Wow,'" Smith said. "It's Tom Brady. He's won Super Bowls. He's been in the league for 13-some years. And me. I just got here."