The competition to be UCLA’s No. 1 quarterback ended Thursday. After nearly four weeks of spring drills and hours spent scrutinizing practice video, Coach Karl Dorrell came to the same decision as the one he made last August.
Ben Olson will start.
Dorrell anointed Olson after workouts Thursday, leaving Patrick Cowan as the backup, the same depth-chart assignments they held when the 2006 season began.
“We found out all the information we needed,” Dorrell said. “We’re ready to move forward. We knew we wanted to make the decision earlier than we have in the past. We wanted to have an idea who we wanted to start the season with and we’ve done it.”
How Olson and Cowan felt about the decision remained a guarded secret; Dorrell refused to let them speak to the media.
Olson, who will be a junior, started the Bruins’ first five games last season before suffering a knee injury.
Cowan, who will also be a junior, took over and scraped out victories in the last three regular-season games, including a 13-9 win over USC.
But in head-to-head competition this spring, Olson again performed better.
“Ben was more consistent and threw for a higher percentage and that was the difference,” Dorrell said.
Asked what Olson’s completion percentage was during spring drills, Dorrell said, “It was higher,” then added, “he did a nice job. The accuracy and completion percentage really doesn’t matter, but it was better.”
Dorrell avoided characterizing the decision as final. Asked whether he might change his mind if Cowan outplays Olson when fall practice begins, Dorrell said, “Let’s get to the fall.”
Olson and Cowan competed while learning a new system under first-year offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. The new offense involves quicker reads and a variety of formations, including some no-back sets.
UCLA, which has 10 starters back on offense, finished seventh in total offense and scoring among Pac-10 teams last season.
Olson appeared to handle the new offense better during scrimmages the last two Saturdays. He put the Bruins in the end zone twice during in-the-red-zone drills in last Saturday’s scrimmage. UCLA struggled to score touchdowns once inside the opponent’s 20-yard line last season.
“You have to be productive in this offense,” Dorrell said. “You’ve got to be able to move the chains, make the throws.”
Olson and Cowan went through the same battle last summer, with Dorrell naming Olson the starter 11 days before the season opener. Olson suffered a knee injury Oct. 7 against Arizona. He did not need surgery and returned to practice a month later.
Though Olson told reporters he was ready to play, Dorrell stuck with Cowan, who beat Oregon State, Arizona State and USC down the stretch to get the Bruins into the Emerald Bowl.
UCLA lost to Florida State, 44-27, in that game.
“When you have two guys who are in the same year, it’s hard because they are competing against each other from the first day,” Norvell said. “Ben performed better at this point. But I think we’re lucky to have both.”
Olson completed 79 of 124 passes for 822 yards and five touchdowns in five-plus games last season. Cowan completed 145 of 276 passes for 1,782 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.