PROVO - This was supposed to be the year Ben Olson finally donned a BYU uniform. But the All-Everything quarterback is nowhere to be found at the Cougars' spring practices.
The most prized recruit in BYU football history a USA Today and Parade All-America out of southern California was supposed to be tossing spirals into the Provo sky this spring after returning from an LDS mission. Cougar fans were anxiously anticipating his debut.
Instead, Big Ben and his big arm are enrolled at UCLA.
When Olson signed with BYU in 2002, it was considered a major coup for the program. However, Olson, who was supposed to be the Cougars' next great quarterback, never played a down while redshirting at BYU in 2002, then he returned from his mission and transferred to a Pac-10 school.
Used to be that the Cougars produced All-America quarterback candidates on a regular basis. But nobody refers to BYU as "Quarterback U." anymore. The last Cougar first-team All-Conference performer at that position was Brandon Doman, who is now BYU's quarterbacks coach. In fact, Doman, who led the Cougars to a 12-2 mark in 2001, is the last quarterback to lead BYU to a conference championship. Heck, he's the last quarterback to lead BYU to a winning season.
The way Doman and first-year offensive coordinator Robert Anae see it, it's time for BYU to go back to the future. That means it's time for the Cougars to return to a tried-and-true scheme and return to developing quarterbacks who put up big numbers, and above all else win games.
"This offense is very similar to what BYU did in the past. Goodness, for 30 years they ran the same offense, and it's very similar to what we used to do," Doman says. "It's just a little bit more spread out and there are more variations, kind of a Texas Tech mixture in there. But it's pretty much the same offense. It's basic. We'll keep it simple. We'll try to be the best in the country at those things that are simple, and that's what BYU did in the past. That's what we're trying to get back to. We want to win, period."
While Olson has departed, Doman sees a lot of potential in the group of quarterbacks he is working with now, including returning starter John Beck, who earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors last season; and seniors Matt Berry and Jason Beck. The competition is wide open and Beck, Berry and Beck are the three frontrunners for the starting job in the fall, Doman says. Others vying for playing time are seniors Jackson Brown and Greg Mortensen and sophomore Mike Affleck, who signed with Arizona State out of Timpview High before transferring to BYU. He sat out last year.
After Doman graduated in 2001, former coach Gary Crowton created a dubious quarterback situation by frequently rotating quarterbacks, sometimes series-by-series and sometimes play-by-play. Injuries played a factor in that scenario as well. What's more, at times different coaches took turns calling the plays. For the quarterbacks, the instability didn't exactly engender confidence in themselves or in their coach.
Don't expect that to be the case under first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Coach Mendenhall is so constant, never changing. These players see that," Doman says. "They need to have a coach who's constant. As they gain confidence and trust in the scheme we're giving them, hopefully they'll be empowered and molded into leaders out on the field. That's the mindset of Coach Mendenhall."
Doman believes that Beck, Beck and Berry have the talent to get the job done. The key, he says, is for them to be confident.
"I think they're all very capable. They're big, strong athletic kids," Doman says. "I think now they just need to gain confidence. They've lacked a little bit of that in the past and I think that's because they've rotated so much. It's been a hard deal for them. Now, each one of them is having an opportunity. They're gaining the reps, gaining the confidence and there's a surety in who their coach is and what he's telling them. Now I just want to see someone take ownership and do it. I'm very, very pleased with all three of them. Each one of them is competing. For me, it's been important for them to know there's a trust in me, but that there's no nonsense, either."
The quarterback's role will be enhanced significantly in the framework of the offensive scheme, Doman says.
"We'll give them a lot of ownership, a lot of empowerment to be a manager on the field as far as calling plays, audiblizing and finding mismatches out there on the field. Hopefully, they'll get comfortable in the offense so that when they see something they want to change to, they'll be comfortable enough to do that. That's my job, to get them confident to do that. The system isn't hard. It's just a matter of training their feet. In that process, they'll train their decision-making to happen faster. As that happens, their timing gets better and they'll be accurate. That's the bottom line with the quarterbacks timing, decision-making and accuracy."
For Berry, playing in this new offense is akin to starting over. "This is why I came to BYU. This is the old offense. I'm really happy," he says. "I'm going to get a fair shot now. I'm just going to go in and run the offense and be consistent."
Berry explains the new offense this way: "There will be a lot of quick hits, a lot of two-back sets like they used to run (at BYU). We're going to hit the back a lot. Hopefully, they'll have more receiving yards than running yards."
"I think it's an offense that will benefit us tremendously," Beck says. "If we execute the plays properly, we should do well. This offense was a high-scoring offense at Texas Tech because they ran it perfectly. Yeah, we have the plays in, but it's up to us to run it perfectly and run it properly."
Doman is impressed with John Beck's strong arm, though he adds that Beck must improve on his accuracy.
"I haven't seen that kind of an arm here for a little while at BYU,"
Doman says. "But he needs to control that strong arm now from throwing the deep balls and the intermediate balls, and that's been a big focus of mine. He realized he wasn't as accurate as he wanted to be last year. I expect him to be in the mid-60s in his completion percentage (Beck completed 56 percent of his attempts in 2004). In this offense, he'll have to be very good at touch passes. He used to throw them too hard. Now he's getting better at that. If he does that, he'll be sweet."
As for the future of the quarterback position at BYU, there is work to be done, considering four of the six quarterbacks on the spring roster are seniors. Doman is hopeful that Jason Beck will get back a year of eligibility. Beck was pressed into duty last year at Stanford, where he completed 23-of-46 passes for 232 yards before suffering an arm injury.
"It's in the NCAA's hands," Doman says. "They should give him a year back. It would be crazy if they didn't. But you just don't know."
Officially, the Cougars didn't sign any quarterbacks in February, although Stephen Covey starred at QB at Timpview High. Covey is slated to play defensive back this fall for BYU and Mendenhall has left the door open for Covey to play QB after his mission.
On the horizon is Jacob Bower, who signed with BYU in 2003 and returns from a mission next summer. "(Bower) will be shoved right into the mix," Doman says.
"We'll have to recruit probably two quarterbacks this year. The high school juniors who are going to be seniors, there are a lot of good ones, a lot of Ben Olson-type kids. It's just a matter of getting them to come to BYU. We have to be good this fall. We'll be fine, as long as John stays healthy and we get Jason his year back."
For Cougar fans who are still dreaming of the day that Ben Olson plays at LaVell Edwards Stadium, they just might get their wish the UCLA Bruins visit Provo in 2008, which would be Olson's senior year.
At this point, the player who will be under center for the Cougars on that day is a mystery. If Doman has his way, though, it will be a quarterback who piles up big numbers and wins games. Just like the good ol' days.