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A Crash or Carry Season

Weight of UCLA's fortunes, and maybe even Karl Dorrell's future, is on quarterback Olson

August 29, 2004|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Drew Olson's football career began ordinarily enough, as a freshman at Piedmont High in the Bay Area, a small school known more for academics than athletics.

He was rough around the edges -- his only experience was two years of flag football -- but his coaches could tell he was special: bigger, stronger, faster than the rest.

Olson wanted to play linebacker or running back, but when they saw him throw he was made the quarterback in hopes he could lift the program to new heights.

What Piedmont's coaches didn't realize until later was that their receivers weren't good enough for a passer of Olson's caliber. They became targets in a shooting gallery.

"Balls were bouncing off their chests," recalls Mike Humphries, the school's athletic director and baseball coach. "He threw so hard, nobody could catch them. We had to move him to varsity and use him as a backup."

Olson learned the system as a freshman, then started for the varsity the next three years, leading his team to consecutive league championships as a junior and senior. He finished high school having completed 439 of 774 passes for 6,103 yards with 60 touchdowns. He was recruited by more than a dozen major colleges.

"We had to design our entire offense around that strong arm of his," says Russ Robb, who coached Olson as a senior. "But he elevated our program to where it is now, and today our kids are still making the playoffs, following the example he set."

*

After a practice this month at UCLA, Olson smiles when talk turns to his high school days. The faraway look in his eyes suggests his fondness for the days when football wasn't quite so serious.

He's about to embark on his junior season in college, his first as full-time starter, and many say the weight of the Bruin season rests upon his shoulders.

UCLA is coming off a 6-7 season, one in which Olson started nine games and showed flashes of brilliance but faltered with the rest of the team during a five-game losing streak at the end, including a 17-9 loss to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic.

Vast improvement is necessary in several areas, starting with the quarterback position. Olson is now being relied on to lift this program to heights not attained since, well, before he arrived; to provide the kind of leadership that didn't exist last season when Matt Moore was chosen the starter, lost that role after being injured in the first game, regained it briefly at midseason, then lost it again to Olson.

There isn't a quarterback controversy -- something that Olson considers a blessing but others find worrisome. Behind him is David Koral, who posted impressive numbers out of a shotgun formation at Santa Monica College but is still struggling with UCLA's more complicated West Coast offense. Brian Callahan, a walk-on, is No. 3.

Standing on the practice field, his helmet tucked beneath his arm and his short blond hair wet with sweat, Olson says he is not naive. He sees the people looking his way; he hears the chatter. He knows the reality of his situation and even seems aware that if he fails to lead the Bruins to a winning record, Coach Karl Dorrell could be out of a job.

He says those are the reasons he has spent long hours studying film, put in extra time with new quarterbacks coach Jim Svoboda and bulked up in the weight room.

"There's a saying that goes like this," he says, after brief contemplation. " 'The quarterback gets too much credit, and the quarterback gets blamed too much.'

"It's just one of those things. It doesn't bother me. I'd rather have [the pressure] on my shoulders than someone else's. It just makes me work harder and want to get better and make this team better."

*

Olson has carried a team before, of course. But that was a different situation entirely. Piedmont, a school of fewer than 1,000 students, churns out Ivy Leaguers earmarked for professional careers, not top-level athletes.

Humphries likes to say that its graduates are more likely to buy NFL teams than play for them. Olson, the school's most successful athlete, is an anomaly, he adds. That much was also evident on the baseball field.

"He could actually dominate the game as a catcher," Humphries recalls. "He had such a good arm that if anybody tried to steal, it was like giving us an automatic out."

Olson, whose older brother Eric went to a different high school and was drafted by the New York Yankees, played varsity baseball for four years. He batted .478 as a junior and was contacted by several major league clubs, but he had his heart set on playing football and attending college, a choice he does not regret.

"I just love football," he says. "The speed of it, the intensity of it and the strategy involved."

Olson spent his freshman season as backup to Cory Paus but started five games after Paus was injured. In his first start, against Washington, Olson completed 13 of 27 passes for 189 yards and directed two long scoring drives. The team finished 8-5 and in a tie for fourth in the Pacific 10 Conference.

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