SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Shaun Hill is a big reason that Mike Singletary became the San Francisco 49ers' coach and shed the interim tag from his title. Not that it matters much now.

Singletary is going with Hill as the 49ers' starting quarterback for their preseason opener Friday night against the Denver Broncos, yet insisted that this isn't a hint about who will be under center come the regular season.

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"Shaun Hill will start the game. I do not know who will start next week," Singletary said Thursday. "Really, it could have been Shaun Hill or Alex Smith we chose, so don't read anything in to it."

Hill, who worked with the No. 1 offense during the team's walkthrough Thursday, went 5-3 over the 49ers' final eight games last season and 2-0 as a fill-in starter in 2007. He has shown he can lead the team and, ultimately, win. That, naturally, is a big factor for an organization that has endured a franchise-worst six straight losing seasons.

Smith, meanwhile, missed all of 2008 after reinjuring his surgically repaired right shoulder days before the season opener.

But if there's a leader in the competition, Singletary won't say.

"I don't care about today. What I care about is at the end of it," the coach said in his matter-of-fact way. "And one can go a little bit ahead and a little bit behind. In all fairness to them, that's the only thing I want to comment on. In terms of who it is, who's ahead, who's not, it really doesn't matter right now for us."

Singletary said he doesn't have a targeted number of plays for Hill in Friday's game. The flow of the game will dictate when Singletary turns the offense over to Smith. Rookie Nate Davis also could have some opportunities.

Hill and Smith have been fairly even through the first 13 days of training camp, which is Singletary's first calling the shots. He took over for the fired Mike Nolan on Oct. 20, and they will be reunited when Nolan returns to Candlestick Park on Friday as the Broncos' defensive coordinator.

Journeyman Hill has faced questions, perhaps unfairly, about whether he can be a legitimate NFL starter able to make the big plays under pressure when it counts -- especially long passes downfield. Hill, 29, was an undrafted free agent in 2006.

"I am probably too far involved to sit there and judge," Hill said. "I'm my own biggest critic, and I don't sit there and try to dwell on what Alex has done either. It'd be impossible for me to say how even it is."

Singletary certainly wishes he already had a starter.

"If we were really pleased, we'd have one. We'd say, 'That's the guy,'" Singletary said. "But I am pleased with the progression that they're making. ... I will be really excited when the time comes to announce who that guy is."

Singletary, who's running a grueling camp and has had his team in full pads since Day 1, gave the 49ers a rare afternoon off Thursday after canceling a scheduled practice session.

Running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Isaac Bruce won't play Friday. Singletary doesn't want to risk injury to two of his star players who have received plenty of work in camp. Rookie Glen Coffee will replace Gore.

Live on NFL Network:
Denver Broncos vs.
San Francisco 49ers,
Friday at 10 p.m. ET

» NFL Network preseason schedule

No matter who he's playing with, Hill plans to be steady.

"I have to approach the game taking what they give me," he said. "If the deep ball's available, I have to take it, but I can't go out there and force something downfield just for the sake of proving to people that I can throw the deep ball. I'm very focused on playing within myself. I feel like I've proven that when I do that what I have is sufficient."

San Francisco players who will be sidelined with injury are starting left guard David Baas (foot), running back Michael Robinson (groin), cornerback Tarell Brown (toe), linebacker Patrick Willis (ankle) and tight end Delanie Walker (concussion).

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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