SANTA CLARA -- A year ago, quarterback Alex Smith was the story as the 49ers prepared for the playoffs.
This time, Smith is far in the background as second-year player Colin Kaepernick's eighth NFL start comes Saturday night when the 49ers play an NFC divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park.
"For me, I'm just worried about being ready to go," said Smith, who has taken only six snaps of mop-up duty since sustaining a concussion on Nov. 11 and being benched in favor of Kaepernick for the second half of the season.
"That's my responsibility: Knowing the game plan, staying in it, staying focused in the meetings. You don't get the reps that you used to get, so it's a different style of preparation."
Smith takes snaps on the scout team, running the plays of the 49ers' opposition against the No. 1 defense. As for the 49ers' offense, Smith is relegated to taking "mental reps" -- standing behind the offense and envisioning he is in Kaepernick's shoes.
It's a completely different role that he had a year ago. In the 49ers' divisional-round playoff game last season, Smith had his best game in an electrifying 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Smith threw for 299 yards, and had a 28-yard touchdown run and a 14-yard scoring pass to Vernon Davis in the final 2:11 of the game.
And a 49ers team that had not been to the playoffs in eight seasons advanced to the NFC Championship game, where the season came to an end with an overtime loss to the New York Giants.
"Those are things you have to go through," Smith said. "You have to have been through them to gain that confidence of being in the playoffs and what it's like and the atmosphere. To get that taste in your mouth to get that close and not get there. I think, for sure, everybody is aware of that this year. I think it's a good thing. It's a good experience to have had. I think it'll help us."
The production of the 49ers' offense has not been dramatically different since the change from Smith to Kaepernick. Smith and Kaepernick both attempted 218 passes in the regular season. Kaepernick threw for 1,814 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, while Smith passed for 1,737 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Kaepernick was more of a threat with his legs, as he was second on the team with 415 yards rushing with five touchdowns.
When asked what impressed him about Kaepernick, Smith answered, "A lot."
Smith complimented Kaepernick for his physical and mental capabilities.
"Physically, he's a tremendous player," Smith said. "A guy that strong, and he can make all the throws. For me, the thing that's jumped out is how fast he's processed it as a young player. I think that's the thing that most often as a young quarterback, no matter how gifted they are physically, where they're behind is going out there and mentally processing things, making quick decisions.
"Colin has done a great job of that of really preparing himself throughout the week and playing fast on game day with his head."