Editor's note: Fifth in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — If any BYU quarterback seemed built to start as a true freshman, it was Ben Olson.
With a 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, a gun for an arm, the five-star prospect was regarded as the best prep QB in the nation and ESPN anointed him the No. 1 overall prospect in the nation. It marked the first and only time the Cougars had ever landed the highest-rated recruit in the country.
The Thousand Oaks, California, native figured to get a shot to start during his first season with the Cougars in 2002 on his way to becoming the next great BYU quarterback.
But it never happened.
Not only did Olson never start at BYU but he also never played a down. He left for an LDS Church mission after his freshman season and then transferred to UCLA.
“To say my time at BYU was interesting would probably be an understatement,” Olson says.
The reason why Olson didn’t play at BYU wasn’t because of injuries or because the quarterback ahead of Olson on the depth chart was having an amazing season (BYU suffered its first losing season, 5-7, in 19 years in 2002).
It was because of coach Gary Crowton’s choice not to play Olson.
“I was told multiple times during that season that I was going to start," Olson recalled. “People are going to do things in life. We’ve all made mistakes and wish we would have handled things better. At the end of the day, it was pretty frustrating, the whole experience that I had at BYU, feeling like I was in a position to help the team but not given an opportunity to do that.”
Why didn’t Olson get a chance to start, or even play, at BYU?
“I have my theories that I’m sure are concrete. I’d rather not put that on public record. I have a good idea about why it didn’t happen,” he said. “Politics in college football was an eye-opening experience for me. I wished it had worked out differently. You always think about what-ifs and what could have been.
"But I’m grateful for the decision to serve a mission. I gained a perspective and I was able to come home and put football in its proper place and be able to handle the struggles and trials I went through at UCLA also.”
When Olson committed to BYU, in the fall of 2001, the Cougars were in the middle of what turned out to be a 12-2 season in Crowton’s first year at the helm, and the Cougars had one of the most prolific offenses in the nation.
“Obviously, coming out of high school, I had high hopes and aspirations. Others had those hopes and aspirations for me as well,” Olson said. “I was told that I was going to have an opportunity to compete for the starting job right out of high school.”
Olson arrived on campus in the summer to participate in workouts and get to know his teammates. Once fall camp started, it became clear to Olson that he wouldn’t be considered as a candidate to start.
“For me, it was a little disappointing, feeling like there wasn’t a true competition in fall camp. If you interviewed everyone that was there, and they were being truthful, it wasn’t an equal reps kind of a thing. It seemed like to me that your position is most often won in the spring.”
Bret Engemann started the 2002 season at quarterback and he led the Cougars to home wins over Syracuse and Hawaii. At that point, BYU was 14-2 under Crowton.
But for the third game, the Cougars infamously flew into Reno the day of the game against the University of Nevada and lost 31-28. Engemann struggled but backup Todd Mortensen didn’t play. Instead, Crowton mixed things up by playing a redshirt freshman, Lance Pendleton, who was more mobile than Engemann.
Following a 28-19 loss at Georgia Tech, BYU had a bye week, during which Crowton decided to open up the quarterback competition between all five QBs, which also included redshirt freshman Matt Berry and Olson.
“I really want to redshirt Ben. I'm trying not to use him," Crowton said at the time. "I know from experience that if you bring a first-year guy in too fast, even though they have great talent, they're not in sync with everybody and they make errors and lose confidence. I don't want to do that with him because he's progressing in our plan of redshirting. But, if he's the best guy and moves the team the best, then I would reconsider that. Right now, I'm trying to look at him as a redshirt."
During that week, a report surfaced that Olson would be the starter against Utah State. But the next Monday, Crowton announced Engemann would start.
This is how Olson remembers that week.
“They opened up the competition, or allegedly opened up the competition,” Olson said. “I came out on top of that competition and was told I was going to start.”
Linebacker Bryan Kehl later said that Crowton had promised Olson he would start against USU.
"I was his roommate there at the hotel in Logan the night before that game," Kehl recalled in 2007. "I remember he was pretty excited because they told him that he was going to start. They changed their mind. He was pretty frustrated after that.”
In that game in Logan, the Cougars went into the locker room at halftime trailing 34-7, capped by an Engemann interception that was returned 75 yards for a USU touchdown.
Many sitting in the stands at Romney Stadium, including Olson’s parents, who traveled from California believing they would see their son’s collegiate debut, expected Olson would play in the second half.
Instead, Engemann started the second half and led a couple of touchdown drives. In the end, the Cougars rallied from the 27-point deficit to win, 35-34.
“That decision to play me changed for whatever reason,” Olson said. “I ended up finally going into Gary at some point and saying, ‘Listen, a year of eligibility is a big deal to me. I’m not going to burn a year of eligibility to play two or three games.' I don’t remember at what point of the season that was.
"As a competitor, I wanted to help the team. We weren’t doing well and I felt I could help the team. It’s a challenge for coaches to manage that position when only one guy can play. You’ve got to worry about other guys leaving the program. Coaches have to do a balancing act. I did learn that politics exist in college football.”
BYU then lost at Air Force, 52-9, and the losses kept piling up that season while Olson languished on the bench.
By the end of October, Olson announced his plans to serve a mission. He was undecided about that before enrolling at BYU. At the time he said he planned to return to Provo after his mission.
Not playing that season may have helped Olson put things in perspective.
“I truly believe that there are no coincidences in our lives," Olson said. "Growing up in Southern California, I wasn’t a BYU fan and didn’t follow BYU that much. I wonder how I ended up there. Gary Crowton’s first year was that good season they had. Things looked like they were going the right direction. Maybe (not playing) gave me the opportunity to take a step back and evaluate what was important.
"It wasn’t because I didn’t play that I said, ‘Heck with this, I’m going to serve a mission.’ It did give me the opportunity to evaluate the importance of serving a mission. Up until that point, I was probably looking for a reason why I didn’t have to serve a mission and be an example by playing football and being an ambassador off the field. Not playing probably had an effect on me for sure.”
Olson served a mission to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. By the time he returned two years later, a lot had changed at BYU.
“When I got home, either a couple of weeks before or a week after I got home, they ended up letting Gary Crowton go,” Olson said. “BYU’s football program at that time was in a little bit of upheaval. I was looking at the options and evaluating everything. I decided I would look at my options and went through the recruiting process again.”
Olson decided to sign with UCLA during the winter of 2005.
“Social media wasn’t as prevalent and the opportunity for people to reach out to me and express their displeasure wasn’t as easy as it is today,” Olson said. “But I knew that the BYU faithful was not happy with me.”
He broke his hand two weeks before the first game in 2005 at UCLA. He won the starting job in 2006 and in his first collegiate start, he helped the Bruins blow out Utah, 31-10, as he threw for 310 yards, his career-high. But midway through the year, Olson suffered a season-ending knee injury.
As a junior in 2007, Olson won the starting job again during spring drills. He led UCLA to a 27-17 victory over BYU in the Rose Bowl against many of his former teammates. Against Notre Dame, he sustained another season-ending knee injury.
Olson tried to make it back for the Las Vegas Bowl at the end of the season — against BYU — but wasn’t physically able to. The Cougars won that matchup in dramatic fashion, 17-16.
Prior to his senior year in 2008, Olson broke his foot. He was standing on the sidelines when UCLA got destroyed by BYU, 59-0, in Provo.
“Unfortunately, I was at that game,” Olson said. It’s the last time he’s been inside LaVell Edwards Stadium. The next day, his oldest son was born to him and his wife, Andrea.
Later during the season, Olson broke his foot again and he had to endure another surgery. He broke his foot yet again as he was preparing for the NFL combine.
“And the rest is history,” he said. “Having been as close as I was to the sport and seeing the difference between who makes it and who doesn’t, to a large degree, it’s a lot of luck. It’s being at the right place at the right time and being surrounded by the right scheme. It comes together for certain people and for others it doesn’t.
"That’s not me trying to sound bitter or resentful of what happened to me because I’m totally at peace with my career and where I’m at in my life. At the same time, I know for a fact that there are a lot of quarterbacks that made it to the NFL that I was better than.”
Olson finished his collegiate career having completed 152 of 275 passes for 1,873 yards with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Today, Olson lives in Lehi with his wife and three children. He works in the software sales industry and he’s in the process of starting his own business.
“It’s been interesting because being in the business world now, I’ll always be grateful for my experiences and the life lessons I’ve learned because so much of it translates to the business world,” Olson said.
Olson remains a big college football fan and he follows the sport closely, always cheering for his Bruins.
Surrounded by BYU fans in Utah County, Olson is supportive of the Cougars as well. Coach Kalani Sitake was the grad assistant for the quarterbacks when Olson was at BYU in 2002.
“Later, we would talk before games when UCLA played Utah,” he said. “I hope Kalani does well at BYU.”
Olson still thinks about how things might have turned out had he played as a true freshman at BYU.14 comments on this story
“You can’t help but wonder about that. At the same time, I believe it worked out the way it did for a reason,” he said. “It was an extremely frustrating experience on many different levels going through the process that I did. I was able to learn from it and it helped me go through the second recruiting cycle to make sure I navigated more carefully than I did coming out of high school.
"Had I not had the perspective and foundation that I had to handle that adversity, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. Everybody has aspirations to play in the NFL. Such a small percentage of players actually do that. It’s interesting to look at all of our different stories and see how we’ve ended up where we’re at. It all comes together for some people and for others, it doesn’t.”