49ers rookie Aldon Smith a quick learner


SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)—The first time Aldon Smith(notes) showed up at 49ers headquarters, new coach Jim Harbaugh gave him a test.

Not about how the former Missouri defensive end would transition to outside linebacker. Or how his right leg had healed after it was broken.

Instead of working Smith out before the draft, Harbaugh quizzed him on the history of football and various other subjects. Smith failed miserably the first time around.

“It was questions like, `Who was Knute Rockne?’ I had no idea,” Smith said.

And now?

“Coach of Notre Dame who died in a plane crash,” he responds.

Smith has proven to be a quick study.

After racking up 6 1/2 sacks during San Francisco’s 6-1 start, the No. 7 overall pick earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for October. And he has distinguished himself as one of the contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year as the 49ers head to Washington (3-4) on Sunday, and he’s done it all playing a position that was completely new to him.

Smith spent almost his entire college career as a defensive end. He made 13 visits to NFL teams before the draft and had seven workouts - only three with teams wanting to convert him to a pass-rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Smith only had to drop back in coverage on a few snaps in college, requiring him to start in an upright position, an entirely different technique from playing with his hand on the ground. On one of those plays, he intercepted a pass by Landry Jones and ran 58 yards to set up a touchdown in Missouri’s 36-27 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma. It was Smith’s first game back after breaking his leg.

“I got a little teasing. That was a crazy game,” Smith said.

San Francisco noticed.

Along with a linebacker corps that includes Patrick Willis(notes) and NaVorro Bowman(notes), Smith is a big reason the 49ers defense has become one of the NFL’s best. San Francisco leads the league with only 15.3 points and 73 yards rushing allowed per game and the franchise already has as many wins as last season.

Smith’s selection by 49ers general manager Trent Baalke on draft night stunned some fans in the Bay Area who craved a quarterback or even a more well-known quantity. After all, some scouts believed he was selected too high and doubts about whether he could transition lingered.

After all, not everybody can make the move to linebacker.

“The toughest part, No. 1, when you’re a dropper, is figuring out if it’s a run or pass and getting into your drop at the right time,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Invariably what happens to most guys who are making this transition, they’re either one way or the other to the extreme. They’re very late getting out in their drop. Or because they’re dropping, they’re way too early. And you’ll see a lot of these guys drop when it’s a run. I know that sounds very elementary. But that’s the hardest part.”

Not only has Smith played linebacker, he also has spent considerable time on the defensive line.

Fangio credits Smith’s work ethic and commitment to both positions, especially since he is often moving back and forth at different times in the game. Smith also has had to overcome the challenges of playing off the bench.

He is still behind starter Parys Haralson(notes), although Fangio acknowledged Smith has probably seen more minutes recently. Coming in fresh has been no problem for the rookie, and his versatility also has made him an instant favorite in the 49ers’ locker room.

“Aldon is playing well. Very much expected of him, he’s our first-round pick,” Willis said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted, when you get the opportunity to go out there and play, you have to make it count. And he’s most certainly doing that.”

Smith will get a firsthand look at one of his toughest rivals for the rookie award this week.

Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan(notes) earned the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September. While he has only two sacks, Kerrigan also has an interception and has emerged as one of the Redskins’ best defenders.

Smith puts the team first, too, but he isn’t afraid to admit he wants the league’s top rookie honor. He set that goal on draft night and hopes to follow through.

“It would mean something,” Smith said. “Every day is just part of the story, man. I’m just kind of going day by day. Rookie of the year would mean a lot.”

NOTES: DE Ray McDonald(notes) remained sidelined with a left hamstring injury during the portion of Thursday’s practice open to media. He was still hoping to play Sunday.

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Updated Thursday, Nov 3, 2011