One exhibition game and one week of practice haven't made Alex Smith a runaway favorite to retain the 49ers starting quarterback job.

Smith, however, remains the front-runner in coach Jim Harbaugh's mind.

"I know as a quarterback when you're competing for a starting job, you like to make it clear-cut. So far, it hasn't had a chance to be clear-cut, yet," Harbaugh said at the end of a media conference call Saturday. "We'll continue to practice. I don't want those guys worried about it. I want them practicing and working and not worrying, and it'll unfold."

Those guys would be Smith and rookie Colin Kaepernick, who replaced Smith after five series in Friday night's exhibition opener and finished out the 24-3 loss to the host New Orleans Saints.

Harbaugh said a possibility exists the 49ers could bring in a veteran quarterback, depending if "the right person (becomes) available."

Smith and Kaepernick were under duress Friday night against a blitz-heavy defense that repeatedly broke free of the 49ers' linemen. Smith completed 2 of 7 passes for 10 yards and got sacked twice. Kaepernick was 9 of 19 for 117 yards, he got sacked four times in the second quarter, and he had two fourth-quarter passes intercepted.

"It wasn't clean, and it was difficult," Harbaugh said of his quarterbacks' challenge. "We struggled offensively. You don't want to see your quarterback get hit like that."

Through it all, Harbaugh noted that neither quarterback appeared to get rattled.


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"We need to make the strides and take the steps necessary to be where we need to be for when the season starts," Smith said after the game.

From the day the 49ers moved up to draft Kaepernick in the second round, Harbaugh has consistently supported Smith and pegged the 2005 draft's top pick as his likely starter. Last month, Smith officially signed a one-year, $5 million deal to return for a seventh season.

"Like we've been saying, there's a competition at every position," Harbaugh said. "And guys are going out, working, competing, learning and getting reps."

Harbaugh decided to let Kaepernick close out Friday's game to work further on mechanics and procedures. The 49ers' other two quarterbacks are undrafted rookies, Jeremiah Masoli and McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

Kaepernick was upbeat after the game and talked about the aspects he must improve. "The biggest thing is being comfortable with where the check-down (receivers) are and what routes I want to get to versus blitzes," Kaepernick said. "One time I tried to audible and had miscommunication. Little things like that we need to fix."

  • Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called 18 first-half blitzes, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Harbaugh said he's seen teams blitz that frequently and didn't complain about Williams' deal. "That's an opportunity for the offense to get a big play," Harbaugh said.

  • Harbaugh took exception to a reporter's claim that the offensive line, as a whole, played poorly. "You make that statement, and by me even answering it it would validate what you're saying," Harbaugh countered. "So those are your words, and I don't agree with them that they didn't play very well."

    He noted that a number of linemen, without naming names, played well on certain downs.

  • Kaepernick and two other rookies, outside linebacker Aldon Smith and cornerback Chris Culliver, came away from their extensive debuts with what Harbaugh termed "teachable moments."

  • Safety Taylor Mays, whom the 49ers looked into trading last week, continues to compete for a role in the secondary and on special teams.

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.