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Nice Touch : CSUN Quarterback O'Laughlin a People-Pleasing Prospect

November 03, 1994|STEVE ELLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Let it be written here, for the first time anywhere: J.J. O'Laughlin was a chunky kid.

Not a big bag of blubber, mind you, but a wide load nonetheless.

"He was a pudgy little guy," said his brother, Brian. "Chubby as in, built like a catcher eating a Snickers bar."

Enjoy the snickers and chuckles while you can, because when it comes to James Joseph O'Laughlin, there aren't many opportunities to laugh at his expense.

O'Laughlin, a preseason All-American quarterback at Cal State Northridge, is the closest thing to Frank Merriwell as there can be in the 1990s. People speak of him in almost- reverential terms, which strikes an unaffected O'Laughlin as borderline hilarious.

Inflated as a kid, nothing of the sort as an adult. Particularly when it comes to ego.

"The kind of guy you'd want your daughter to marry," football Coach Bob Burt said. Gee whiz.

"What you see is what you get," teammate Travis Hall said. "He's the real deal."

Golly gosh.

"I also help old ladies cross the street," O'Laughlin said..

Old scouts cross the country to eye his wares. They furiously scribble notes at practice and carefully scrutinize his game film.

He ranks among the best college players in Southern California, sentiments bellowed from the mountaintops by Burt.

He might be the best quarterback in Northridge history. Care to hear O'Laughlin discuss the validity of the issue?

As his brother might say: Fat chance.

*

It was the first time O'Laughlin ever quit anything. It tore at his very moral fabric.

Growing up, J.J. wanted to win so badly, his older brothers on occasion half-seriously accused him of cheating. Now he was coming home to Glendora with his tail between his legs and his belongings in a U-Haul trailer.

A disenchanted O'Laughlin packed up his truck last August, grabbed a road map and headed west, leaving the University of Illinois and the Big Ten Conference in the old rear-view.

He arrived in Southern California on a Friday and drove to San Diego the following day to catch Northridge in action against San Diego State. He watched from the stands as quarterback Coley Kyman suffered a broken ankle.

Said Burt afterward: "Get ready. We're down to two (quarterbacks)."

. At that point, O'Laughlin hadn't even met his new teammates, who gathered around during his first practice to see what all the hubbub was about. Sure, he was a transfer from D-1, but was he the one?

"The first day of practice, he threw a deep ball, with the tightest spiral I've ever seen, right on the money," said Hall, a junior tight end. "I thought, 'Maybe we've got something here.' "

Something else, it seemed. O'Laughlin practiced for one week, then saw action in Northridge's next game against Weber State. He threw two touchdown passes and was named the starter, which means that either Northridge was running an offense that Fred Flintstone could master or J.J.'s a quick study.

"Definitely the former," O'Laughlin said.

Maybe not. O'Laughlin, who carries a grade-point average of 3.5, saw a new playbook about every 15 minutes at Illinois. In three years with the Illini, he had three different position coaches.

He first committed to Illinois and Coach John Mackovic in 1990, after three years as the starter at Glendora High. Mom and dad bought a satellite TV dish to follow his athletic progress.

Buying ComSat itself wouldn't have helped, the way things turned out. He hardly played.

Mackovic bolted for Texas a year later and was replaced by Lou Tepper. With his parents' encouragement, O'Laughlin stuck it out as a reserve.

"I figured that sooner or later, they'd finally see that he was the best man for the job," said his mother, Terry.

He was--if the job was holding a clipboard and trying to look interested. After participating in summer camp in '93, O'Laughlin requested and received a blunt assessment.

"They told me I was not in the picture," O'Laughlin said. "They had their guys they recruited. I really had no choice if I wanted to play. And I had to play."

To gain immediate eligibility, O'Laughlin needed to join a program that competed in Division I-AA or lower. Northridge, which plays in I-AA and fit the profile, was close to home.

Burt, who also coached at Cal State Fullerton, UCLA and Hawaii, said O'Laughlin (6 feet 3, 200 pounds) is the most complete quarterback he's coached.

"He's what coaches dream of having at that position," Burt said. "He has the ability and the intangibles. If a coach could have a guy like him every year, he'd have a major problem solved--forever."

O'Laughlin's arrival was the solution for team and player, though there are trade-offs for the latter. After all, ambushing opponents like Cal State Chico and Sonoma State doesn't exactly spice up a guy's football portfolio.

O'Laughlin has passed for 1,697 yards and ranks 19th in total offense in I-AA, yet the Matadors are 3-4. Funding issues have been a major distraction and football could face the chopping block.

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