Alex Smith shows a new side to his game

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Alex Smith shows a new side to his game

It's all starting to make sense now.On the day the 49ers selected Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, his college coach, Urban Meyer, provided a prescient perspective of the young quarterback.Six-and-a-half years later, Meyer's words are worth revisiting."Alex is an extremely quick learner," Meyer began. "However, he's a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional. . . . Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, has to learn it all. He might struggle early, but once he gets it, he gets it."I'm going to be anxious to watch his development with the 49ers. Alex is so careful with the ball. His touchdown-to-interception ratio the last 2 years (at Utah) was phenomenal (47 touchdowns and seven interceptions). That's because, unless he knows exactly what's going on, he won't throw it. He won't just try to guess and take a shot. He has to know."Meyer concluded, "That's why, early in his career, and early in our career with him at Utah, he was not an effective passer, because he really didn't understand. Once he understood, there was no one better. He learns quickly, though. But he's not a guy that you throw the ball out there and tell him, 'Go play.' He wants to know what is exactly expected of him and then he becomes a dynamite player." Alex Smith is coming off a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which he completed 11 of 19 passes for 170 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.But the play that impressed me the most was an incomplete pass he threw in the second quarter. I've watched every snap of Smith's professional career. I've seen him in practice through the years.What I saw him do Sunday against the Buccaneers was something I'd never seen him do -- ever. With as many changes as Smith has endured in his seven-year career, it looks as if he is finally just going out and playing football.
It was a first-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 45-yard line. Smith dropped into the pocket. He rolled to his left to buy a little extra time. Then, he did something that, seemed almost out of character.
He signaled with his left hand to tight end Delanie Walker to abandon the script and go deep. In six seasons, I've witnessed a mostly robotic, paint-by-numbers quarterback. This is the first time I saw him improvise in such a way.The fact that the pass fell incomplete into the end zone was of little consequence. The play might have been symbolic of something greater."We were just playing football," Walker said. "That's something Alex hasn't ever done before. It kind of shocked me a little bit. I think that's why I misjudged the ball. He saw I had the dude beat and nobody was behind me. I came back and he was like, 'Go! Go deep.'"That was the first time doing it, so we weren't on the same page. Now, we're going to be on the same page. He wanted to put it on my outside shoulder to lead it away from the safety that was playing inside. It was basically playing street football."When I asked Smith about the play, he said he and the 49ers' offense are getting a lot more comfortable and confident."When you're comfortable with what you're doing, you're making good decisions and in your head the play slows down," Smith said. "So when a play breaks down, you stay under control."The epitome of that is when I watch Aaron (Rodgers) and the Packers. Everything is under control. All of a sudden, when it's not there, he remains so fluid and under control and there's never a breakdown or anxiety. He's so comfortable and they're so comfortable, and everything is under control, so they play faster because of it."I think there's a little of that with us. But I think we have a long way to go, and I have a long way to go."

49ers offense: Top competitions entering training camp

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AP

49ers offense: Top competitions entering training camp

The 49ers open training camp next week in Santa Clara with a number of competitions going on simultaneously on both sides of the ball.

Coach Kyle Shanahan did not hire an offensive coordinator. He will assume the role of running the offense, as he atempts to remake the 49ers' offense to his specifications.

Brian Hoyer is set at quarterback. Joe Staley will line up at left tackle. Kyle Juszcyzk was signed as the highest-priced fullback in the NFL, and the starting wide receivers figure to be Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin.

After that, things are a lot less certain.

Here is a look at the 49ers’ top four training camp battles on offense...

INTERIOR O-LINE
The tackle positions appear straight-forward with Staley and Trent Brown – though Brown will have to hold off Garry Gilliam to retain his starting job.

But there are a lot of options for the 49ers at the three interior positions. Zane Beadles started all 16 games last season at three different positions. He enters camp as the front-runner to start at left guard.

Jeremy Zuttah, who was added to the Pro Bowl roster at center last season, came to the 49ers in an offseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Zuttah and Daniel Kilgore will compete for the starting job. Tim Barnes, who started 32 games the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, is in the mix, too.

If Zuttah is not the starting center, he can transition to either guard position to compete with Beadles on the left side or, more likely, the right side.

Joshua Garnett, whom former 49ers general manager Trent Baalke traded up to select in the first round of the 2016 draft, will have to show dramatic improvement over his rookie season to return as the starter at right guard.

Brandon Fusco, who spent his first six NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, started 16 games at left guard in 2015 and 14 games last season at right guard.

TIGHT END
It is within the realm of possibility the 49ers could have a complete overhaul at tight end, as none of the five players who finished the season with the team is a lock to win a roster spot.

The 49ers selected George Kittle in the fifth round. He showed a lot of promise with the best showing of any tight end during the team’s offseason program. The 49ers this offseason also added blocking tight end Logan Paulsen, who has experience in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and undrafted rookie pass-catcher Cole Hikutini.

Vance McDonald was the subject of trade talks during the draft – just months after signing a contract extension with $9.1 million in guaranteed money. Garrett Celek and Blake Bell also face stiff competition in order to be back on the 53-man roster.

RUNNING BACK
Carlos Hyde is entering the final year of his original four-year contract, and he has competition for the first time since Frank Gore’s exit cleared the way for him to be the featured back.

Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner handpicked former Utah running back Joe Williams for their scheme. Williams got off to a slow start after joining the offseason program, but he eventually put himself into a position to compete for a significant role in training camp.

Veteran additions Tim Hightower and Kapri Bibbs will be competing for roles in the backfield, as well. Undrafted rookie Matt Breida had an impressive offseason during the non-padded practices.

SLOT RECEIVER
Jeremy Kerley was one of the few free agents from last year’s team that the 49ers had any interest in re-signing. Kerley was the best receiver on the team a year ago -- and it wasn’t even close. He caught 64 passes for 667 yards for the league's least-productive passing game.

The 49ers selected Trent Taylor in the fifth round, and he made an immediate impact during the offseason program after catching 136 passes for 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Louisiana Tech.

A year ago, Bruce Ellington was the 49ers’ best receiver during training camp before his season came to an abrupt end with a torn hamstring in an exhibition game. The onus is on Ellington to remain healthy and prove himself to the new coaching staff.

O.J. Simpson a free man, granted parole in Nevada

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AP

O.J. Simpson a free man, granted parole in Nevada

UPDATE (11am on Thursday) -- O.J. Simpson is a free man. The San Francisco native was granted his parole on Thursday by the Nevada Parole Board with a unanimous 4-0 decision. 

Simpson, who turned 70 this month, can be released from prison as early as Oct. 1 after armed robery charges put him away for almost nine years -- the minimum of a 33-year sentence. 

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LOVELOCK, Nev. -- O.J. Simpson once thrilled crowds as he ran for touchdowns and hurdled airport seats in car rental ads to achieve Hollywood celebrity before he was acquitted of murder in the 1995 "trial of the century" in Los Angeles.

Now, an aging Simpson will appear as inmate No. 1027820 in a starkly plain hearing room in a remote Nevada prison Thursday to plead for his freedom. He's spent more than eight years behind bars for armed robbery and assault with a weapon after trying to take back sports memorabilia in a budget hotel room in Las Vegas.

Simpson, 70, will ask four parole board members who sided with him once before to release him in October, a likely possibility with his clean prison record.

It will be a stunning scene for a charismatic star once known as "The Juice" who won the Heisman Trophy as the best U.S. college football player in 1968 and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

He appeared to have it all.

He went on to star in Hertz commercials and movies like the "Naked Gun" comedies and do sideline reporting for "Monday Night Football" before his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were slain in 1994.

Simpson is expected to reiterate that he has kept a promise to stay out of trouble, coaches in the prison gym where he works and counsels other inmates.

"I guess, my age, guys come to me," Simpson told parole officials four years ago.

The same commissioners granted him parole on some of his 12 charges in 2013, leaving him with four years to serve before reaching his minimum term.

At Simpson's side in his bid for freedom will be lawyer Malcolm LaVergne, close friend Tom Scotto, sister Shirley Baker and daughter Arnelle Simpson.

O.J. Simpson is expected to explain what he would do and where he would live if he is granted parole after reaching the nine-year minimum of his 33-year sentence.

He was convicted in 2008 after enlisting some men he barely knew, including two with guns, to retrieve from two sports collectibles sellers some items that Simpson said were stolen from him a decade earlier.

"My crime was trying to retrieve for my family my own property," Simpson told the parole officials in 2013 before apologizing.

"Make no mistake, I would give it all back," he said, "to get these last five years back."

The items disappeared after Simpson was found not guilty in the 1994 killings of his ex-wife and her friend and before he was found liable in 1997 in civil court for the deaths.

He was ordered to pay $33.5 million to survivors including his children and the Goldman family.

A Goldman family spokesman said Ron Goldman's father and sister, Fred and Kim, won't be part of Simpson's parole hearing but that they felt apprehensive about "how this will change their lives again should Simpson be released."

"They will remain patient and optimistic that the system will do what is necessary to ensure the public's safety remains a priority and that proper justice will be served," spokesman Michael Wright said this week.

The Goldmans believe Simpson got away with murder in Los Angeles, and many people felt the stiff sentence handed down in 2008 in Las Vegas wasn't just about the robbery.

Now, even the retired district attorney who prosecuted Simpson for the heist acknowledges that Simpson has a good chance to go free. But David Roger denied Simpson's sentence was "payback" for his acquittal in the Los Angeles slayings.

The former prosecutor said Simpson took a gamble when he rejected an offer to avoid trial by pleading guilty to a felony that could have gotten him 2½ years in prison.

"He thought he was invincible, and he rolled the dice," Roger said.