- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shaun Hill’s road to starting in the NFL might have been the longest in the league.

His last start during two years as Maryland’s quarterback was in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 2002. His next start came Dec. 15, 2007.

But Hill enters San Francisco’s season finale Sunday against the Washington Redskins with a firm hold on the starting quarterback job. Hill has started the past seven games, winning four and losing only to NFC West champion Arizona and playoff contenders Dallas and Miami. The 49ers hadn’t had a 4-3 stretch since 2003.

“The process I’ve been through does make it pretty special,” said Hill, who turns 29 on Jan. 9. “I have been fortunate to be with some really good quarterbacks and learn a lot from those guys.”

49ers coach Mike Singletary said Hill’s unconventional path might have aided his development. He didn’t play early and struggle like Alex Smith, who bombed after being selected first overall by San Francisco in the 2005 draft.

“A quarterback who has a chance to come up through the ranks, sometimes that can be a good thing because it gives him an opportunity to really take a step back and look at some other quarterbacks. [You] look at some of the successes and some of the failures and [think], ‘Would I do that differently?’” Singletary said. “It gives them something to build on and that confidence level before they ever have to go out there and really do it.”

Hill has really done it since replacing J.T. O’Sullivan. He is the NFL’s 12th-rated passer, ahead of Brett Favre, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb and Ben Roethlisberger.

“Shaun’s never going to look pretty for you,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “He’s never going to have that big, strong arm, but he wins. He’s a gutsy guy. He’s just one of those guys who has ‘it.’ He can just move the chains and get the ball in the end zone.”

Only five quarterbacks have thrown more touchdowns per pass attempt than Hill, who has 12 in 258 passes. Only three have been stingier with interceptions than his seven.

“He’s really helped our team from a confidence level, really provided the leadership that we needed,” said Singletary, who benched O’Sullivan and made Hill the starter for his second game as coach. “The bottom line is, he manages the game well. For the most part, with the exception of last week [when Hill threw three early interceptions at St. Louis], he takes care of the ball. He makes great decisions.”

Hill’s best decision might have been choosing Maryland after leaving Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in 2000. Friedgen, the offensive coordinator for the 1994 AFC champion San Diego Chargers, has long run a pro-style offense.

“When I was coming out of high school, I wasn’t developed at all as a passer,” Hill said. “I was an option quarterback. [Ralph’s offense] definitely helped me develop as a passer and get ready for the pro game.”

Still, after signing with Minnesota as a rookie free agent in 2002 - largely because then-Vikings coach Mike Tice was a Maryland alum - Hill’s only action in four years was a kneel-down at the end of the 2005 finale. Norv Turner was hired as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2006 and pushed the 49ers to sign Hill, whom he remembered from his tenure as Washington’s coach.

Hill finally got to play last December after Smith and Dilfer were injured; he led the 49ers to a 2-1 record while posting a superb 101.3 passer rating. Dilfer retired and Turner’s replacement, Mike Martz, brought in O’Sullivan. But when Singletary replaced Mike Nolan, Hill wasn’t long from getting another shot at the job.

“The next guy that steps in, inevitably if he has success, then he will be measured with those guys,” Singletary said. “But until the time that the 49ers reach that amount of success, you’re just trying to win.”

Staff writer Patrick Stevens contributed to this report.