When Alex Smith arrived at the University of Utah in 2002, he was chronologically a freshman, academically a junior and athletically the quarterback of the future for the Utes.

Three years later, he has a bachelor's degree in economics, has begun work on his master's, talks about someday going to law school and is at the beginning of a six-year, $49.5 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers, who chose him first overall in the NFL draft six months ago.

But, for the foreseeable future, Smith almost certainly will have to acquaint himself with something completely foreign to him.

Failure.

The 49ers (1-4), who will face the Washington Redskins (3-2) at FedEx Field on Sunday, were the worst team in the NFL last year, losing 14 of 16 games. Aside from hiring Mike Nolan -- the Redskins' defensive coordinator from 1997 to '99 -- to replace fired coach Dennis Erickson, the 49ers' most significant offseason move was the decision to draft Smith.

And, with the trade of opening day starting quarterback Tim Rattay to Tampa Bay on Tuesday, Smith officially has been handed the keys to the franchise. The team's other two quarterbacks are Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett.

History has been unkind to rookie NFL quarterbacks, and Smith, who will make his second pro start Sunday, is playing on a 49ers team with an injured offensive line and no proven playmaking weapons.

Yet Smith hardly seems fazed. Whatever happens, Smith realizes that for a 21-year-old, his life is about as good as it gets.

"I've been very, very fortunate," Smith said during an interview after a practice last week at the 49ers' headquarters. "That's why, no matter what goes on, no matter what happens to me, there's not too much to be complaining about in my life."

In recent weeks, the 49ers lost to two teams whose quarterbacks once were in the identical situation Smith finds himself in today. Late last month, in Smith's next-to-last game as Rattay's backup, the 49ers fell to the Dallas Cowboys, whose quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, was drafted first overall by New England in 1993. Asked what it was like as a rookie trying to find his receivers against NFL defenses, Bledsoe gave a picturesque description.

"At times," Bledsoe said, "it felt like I was sticking my head inside a popcorn machine trying to pick out the right piece."

Two weeks later, Smith found out what Bledsoe was talking about. In his first NFL start, a lopsided loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Smith was intercepted four times -- the same number of times he was intercepted all last year during Utah's unbeaten season. He completed 9 of 23 passes for 74 yards and finished with an 8.5 passer rating. Yes, 8.5.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the first overall pick in 1998, applauded the 49ers' decision to let Smith play.

"You can only learn so much on a chalkboard," Manning said.

The 49ers believe Smith is up to the task. He'd better be. Dorsey is a third-year player out of Miami who has started seven games and has a 62.4 passer rating; Pickett, a second-year player out of the University of Washington, has played quarterback in one game, in which he had an 18.7 rating.

At a very mobile 6 feet 4 and 212 pounds, Smith possesses immense physical gifts to complement the aforementioned smarts. It is for those reasons that the 49ers view Smith as the player who can return to respectability a franchise whose fans still pine for Joe Montana and Steve Young.

During the pre-draft evaluation process, Nolan concluded that Smith not only is intelligent and diligent, but that he has qualities that will enable him not only to lead an NFL team but to handle the inevitable setbacks.

Smith gave a small sample against the Colts after being decked in the third quarter by linebacker David Thornton, who received a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.

"Boy," Smith told his teammates when he reached the huddle, "that felt good."

It was a small joke, but to Nolan, it told a bigger story.

"The linemen, they like to see that," Nolan said. "They like to see a tough guy."

It appears as if Smith has indeed won the approval of those whose job it is to protect him.

"From Day One when Alex got here, you would have no idea that he was a rookie," starting guard Eric Heitmann said. "He's bright, he knows the system, he's very assertive in the huddle, very confident. That's what you need as an offensive line."

No matter what happens the rest of the year, the hardest moments for Smith came during the preseason. Smith's selection by the 49ers had created a reunion with Thomas Herrion, an offensive lineman who was a friend and had been a college teammate.

On Aug. 20 following a preseason loss at Denver, Herrion, 23, collapsed without warning in the locker room, the victim of a fatal heart attack.

Smith says now that for days afterward, he was in shock. To this day, the reminders are never far away, because Herrion's locker, now a shrine to the fallen player, is adjacent to the door that leads to the practice field at the 49ers' headquarters.

But Smith said he needs no reminders of Herrion. In the aftermath of the loss to the Colts, thoughts of Herrion reminded Smith of something completely different.

"I think it's something that constantly helps me put things in perspective," Smith said. "There's more to me than [being] a football player, there's more to life than this game."

But as for the game, though he is still learning the X's and O's and adjusting to the West Coast offense after directing Utah's unorthodox shotgun attack, Smith has yet to make a misstep while navigating the equally vital interpersonal realm that goes with his position and status.

"There's a way to handle a win, there's a way to handle a defeat, there's a way to handle a good performance and a bad one," Nolan said. "I always say he hasn't let me down in any way. . . . When he is called upon, what's in his heart, what comes out are the right things."

Montana . . . Young . . . Smith? The 49ers' Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, fumbles here in his first start in the NFL on Oct. 9. "It's something that constantly helps me put things in perspective," the 49ers' Alex Smith says of the death of teammate Thomas Herrion.