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Quarterbacks Begin Battle to Lead UCLA

August 14, 1993|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The process will begin with those who wear no shoulder pads or helmets, who blow no whistles. They will be on scaffolds with cameras and on the sidelines with clipboards and will record every pass--completion, interception, touchdown.

Every move made by Wayne Cook, Rob Walker and Ryan Fien will be quantified to whatever extent the computer age allows. But one plus one doesn't always equal a quarterback, and in the end, the player who takes the first snap against California on Sept. 4 will be chosen because Coach Terry Donahue and offensive coordinator Homer Smith believe he can lead UCLA's offense, can generate points.

Can win.

A three-headed quarterback begins two-a-day workouts today on campus, but two of the heads will be on the Rose Bowl sideline with Donahue, disappointed, on the first Saturday in September.

The stakes are high. Each of the three sees himself as the heir apparent to the recent lineage of Tom Ramsey, Jay Schroeder, Steve Bono, David Norrie, Troy Aikman, Tommy Maddox--NFL draftees all. And each sees himself as next in line for what all three call "the next step."

The coaches are noncommittal, except to say that each will get a chance to hear his name called as game-week preparations begin.

"It's impossible for me to make a statement at this time" as to who is the front-runner, Smith said, adding that each of the three has qualities in his favor.

"Wayne Cook has in his background the more impressive practice time and even game time," Smith said, "but he has a knee."

"A knee" means that there is a history of injury. That might be why there is competition at all. He won the job a year ago, as a sophomore, and justified the decision by passing for 155 yards and a touchdown in less than two quarters in the 1992 opener against Cal State Fullerton.

But with 3:51 to play in the first half, the Titans' Randy Strickland hit Cook's right knee, tearing ligaments and ending Cook's season, seemingly before it had begun.

Thus began a rehabilitation process, and the camera and the coaches will be there today to see if it's complete.

"I think the job is mine to lose," said Cook, declaring himself sound. But the judgment is not his to make, and there are others whose bids aren't completely contingent on Cook having two sound legs.

"Rob Walker has more experience and is capable," Smith said.

The experience began when Cook limped off the Rose Bowl field 11 months ago.

Walker came in and was nervous, but he finished the victory over Fullerton and added those over Brigham Young and San Diego State, learning as he went, making up for the time UCLA had invested in grooming Cook and growing in confidence with each game before running into Arizona's defense, perhaps the nation's best.

"We hit a defense for which we were poorly prepared and were stopped," Smith said.

The next week, Walker passed for 242 yards against Stanford but was sacked six times and finished the game on an ankle that sidelined him for the rest of the season, save for a four-series appearance against Oregon.

"I think I've earned the chance to be the starter," Walker said, pointing out his game experience and "a pretty good spring, as far as stats go. I expect the same chance everyone else is getting."

Much of that spring practice was split with Fien, a sophomore who became quarterback by necessity when Walker was injured.

"Ryan Fien was impressive on the practice field," said Smith, who sets great store by time spent Monday through Friday.

Fien has a redshirt year available, which could allow UCLA to store him against future need, a need that presented itself last season.

With Cook and Walker sidelined, senior John Barnes was given a chance against Washington State. But that lasted only three series, the last of which ended with an interception that the Cougars' Ron Childs returned 17 yards for the game's first touchdown.

Enter Fien, trying to grow up between the sideline and the huddle. "It was embarrassing," he said, and that embarrassment drives him as practice begins today. He completed only five of 20 passes for 55 yards and learned the difference between playing at Simi Valley High and in the Pacific 10.

"Everybody has told me, 'Be easy on yourself,' but I can't," he said.

He was so intense and determined that he didn't tell coaches he was playing on a broken foot. "It really hurt, but I didn't tell anybody," he said. "It was my shot ."

That shot carried into the Arizona State game, during which Fien was replaced by Barnes in the second half.

It was left for Barnes to finish the year with final-game heroics in a victory over USC, and now another season beckons.

The personal stakes are high.

"I feel like this is my year," Cook said, adding softly: "It has to be."

He is a junior, who sees two long years of frustration ahead should he lose in competition with either of the two sophomores.

Walker is more low-key, but said: "I'm hungry."

Fien is guarded in his appraisal, acknowledging the possibility of a redshirt season, but saying: "I find it tough to stand and watch any time, and I would find it very tough to stand and watch, knowing that the guy playing has another year after this one."

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