SANTA CLARA -- Need a pep talk for the often-panned fourth NFL exhibition game? Then the 49ers' Scott Tolzien is your guy.
"The public might see it as the last game before the big time, the regular season," Tolzien said in anticipation of Thursday's home game against the San Diego Chargers. "But it's such an important game for us younger guys, and guys trying to get a roster spot."
A year ago, when these same teams met in San Diego, Tolzien played quarterback for the Chargers as an undrafted rookie. He didn't survive the final cuts in San Diego, but that final audition caught the eye of the opposition and helped him land on the 49ers roster.
Now Tolzien is battling to retain his job as the No. 3 quarterback over Josh Johnson.
But Tolzien isn't just thinking about himself. He's relayed a "this-is-big-for-us" message to several rookies, including wide receivers A.J. Jenkins, Chris Owusu and Nathan Palmer.
To show how an exhibition finale can keep you employed -- with the 49ers or elsewhere -- look no further than Tolzien's Chargers farewell: 16 of 23 passing for 226 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
"That game was a big game for him because it basically got him a roster spot here," Palmer said. "Having that film out there is really important for young guys like myself."
Coach Jim Harbaugh said Tolzien was on the 49ers' radar ahead of that game, adding: "There were other factors in that decision."
Tolzien quickly earned respect by putting in long hours at the 49ers facility, even sleeping in the players' lounge for nearly two weeks.
"I had to learn a whole new playbook," Tolzien recalled. "I was behind the 8-ball. It's the start of the season, and you just got your playbook, especially here where's it's extensive. That was of premium importance.
"I was here late nights, so I figured why not just stay here?"
After a dazzling debut Aug. 10 against the Minnesota Vikings, Tolzien has gone on to produce a team-worst passer rating of 53.8 (15-of-26 passing for 123 yards with one interception).
Harbaugh said Alex Smith will start against the Chargers before the backups are summoned. The race for the No. 3 job was too close for Harbaugh to call after Sunday's exhibition win at Denver.
Manningham did not attend Sunday's exhibition in Denver and is not expected to return to the 49ers until later
For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.
San Diego (3-0) at 49ers (2-1), 7 p.m. KBCW