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The Future Might Be Now

Ben Olson's arrival and Drew Olson's injury could mean UCLA is about to change course

February 22, 2005|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Ben Olson last played in a football game more than three years ago, when he was in high school. The last two seasons, he did not even practice.

But that hasn't stopped Bruin supporters and many of his new classmates from looking at the 6-foot-5, 239-pound quarterback as the future of UCLA's football program, which has not won a major bowl game since the 1997 season and is coming off consecutive non-winning seasons under third-year Coach Karl Dorrell.

Even former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who produced numerous outstanding college quarterbacks, regards UCLA's prized recruit as the real deal.

"He'll do a great job," said Chow, who met Olson when he was an underclassman at Thousand Oaks High several years ago. "I don't think he'll have a problem at all."

But Olson, a 21-year-old redshirt freshman, will face a challenge as he returns to football after redshirting at Brigham Young in 2002 and spending the next two years on a Mormon Church mission in Canada.

Although many Mormon football players have returned to the game successfully after a mission, including NFL tight ends Chad Lewis, Greg Clark and Itula Mila, reentry has been tough on quarterbacks.

Even Darrell Bevell, who led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl victory in 1994, and Brandon Doman, who led BYU to a 12-2 record as a senior in 2001, struggled in their first seasons back.

"I know that I can do it, but it's going to take time," Olson said. "I'm realistic about it. I haven't played in a football game in some time."

Olson's last game was an all-star game in January 2002, when he completed a celebrated prep career at Thousand Oaks High rated as the nation's top quarterback.

He entered BYU and spent his first year on the bench before leaving for Canada. During his mission, he decided to consider other schools, which were free to recruit him during his time away from college.

"His biggest challenge is going to be getting back into football playing condition," said Chow, who was an assistant coach at BYU for 27 years. "For two years, you don't do much football-wise because, obviously, you're concentrating on something else. It's hard to maintain the physical condition you had before you left."

After committing to the Bruins in late December, Olson arrived in Westwood the first week of January and immediately went to work. With a daily schedule that included passing workouts and sessions with strength and conditioning coach E.J. "Doc" Kreis, individual meetings with quarterbacks coach Jim Svoboda and 14 units of classes, Olson has little time to rest.

"I'm a little rusty, but it's been good to get back into this atmosphere," said Olson, who has added muscle while losing nearly 20 pounds since returning. "Working out every day, throwing the football regularly. Just being a part of football has been awesome."

He's also trying to learn UCLA's complex West Coast offense on the fly, another reason Dorrell is trying to keep pressure off him with spring practice set to begin Wednesday.

"I'm guarded at first," Dorrell said. "I haven't had a chance to see Ben on the field yet. I haven't been able to see him really do anything. The way everyone is portraying him to be in regard to our program -- we want him to be as well. But it's hard to make an assessment if I haven't seen him on the field.

"Probably the thing I'm most encouraged about is how extremely hard Ben has worked since he got here. He's learned and picked up the system well, and made some good friends with his teammates."

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The recruiting process for today's blue-chip athletes, with the constant telephone calls and Internet rumors, can take a toll on a player and his family.

"When Ben first came home from the mission, we were in the car driving home from the airport when we got our first call," said Olson's father, Rick. "It was a call from a media person. That began the whole process again.

"At first we were a little taken aback, because we could not believe how quickly everything started. It began at a busy pace and stayed there."

As a high school senior, Olson was said to make people think of a left-handed John Elway because of his size, arm and athletic ability.

"There was no question that he was going to be a great player, you could just tell," Chow said, recalling Olson as a young teenager at a BYU summer camp. "Great quarterbacks have what I call the 'it' factor. I don't know what it is, but it is a you-have-it-or-you-don't type of thing. It was clear that he had that."

During his two years in Calgary, where his days often lasted from before 7 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., Olson relied on his father to track the recruiting.

Coaches would e-mail the family, trying to persuade Ben to consider their school once he completed his mission. But from the start, Olson said, he had a good feeling about Dorrell and the Bruins. He liked the idea of staying close to home and was comfortable with Drew Olson -- no relation -- returning for his senior season as a two-year starter.

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