Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spring Practice: Quarterbacks

The battle for the starting spot at quarterback was billed as the highlight of the spring scrimmages. Would the coaches go with Ben Olson, the much heralded lefty who started the first 5 games of 2006 before being injured? Or would they stick with Pat Cowan, the gritty scrambler who led the Bruins to their huge upset victory over the Trojans last December.

Another wrinkle in the whole selection process was the hiring of a new offense coordinate, Jay Norvell, from Nebraska. Norvell introduced his own variation of the west coast offense, which included a new more-verbose vocabulary for calling plays. This meant that Pat and Ben would be learning a whole new system, even if some of the plays and routes were similar. He also implemented a faster pace to the offense with an emphasis on getting in plays quickly.

There was a big dump of information to start the spring. Norvell wanted to just get everything into the players’ heads and then work out the kinks during the practices. By the last week of spring ball, Dorrell had this to say about the quarterbacks' grasp of the new offense, “We've put in about everything we're going to put in. You can see that they are starting to feel like they know everything."

In addition to the new vocabulary, it sounds like Norvell is implementing a number of new formations, including a spread-like set with multiple receivers. During the spring practice, the offense was consistently shifting formations on the line and they implemented some irregular plays. Norvell also seems committed to using more of the shotgun as it was utilized a number of times during the spring. He even introduced some trick plays, including a pass back to the QB from the fullback.

"There are a lot of new plays and formations and terminology," Olson said. "We're going out of the shotgun more and running some no back formations. I'm feeling more comfortable out there now."

Along with his coordinator responsibilities, Norvell is also in charge of the quarterbacks. When asked to compare the two leading signal callers, Norvell said, "Pat has been more disciplined. The first week I think he was trying to do more than he was being asked. I said to him, 'Two plus two is four, don't try to make it five.' "

As for Olson, Norvell said, "You can see his talent and his athletic ability. He's playing with more confidence. He's confident in the pocket and he is confident in getting the ball to receivers. I've seen that the last few days."

From eye witness accounts, it sounds like both quarterbacks had up and down days. The early reports from the start of the spring were of an offense that was struggling and getting dominated by the defense. You expect that to some degree, as the offense was attempting to learn a new system. However, as the practice progressed, it sounds like both Pat and Ben improved on their numbers.

Norvell stressed accuracy and told the QBs that they would have to do push-ups whenever they miss targets during drills.

The following stats were drawn out of a number of eye witness and news paper accounts. The numbers may not be entirely accurate and they include 11-on-11, 7-on-7, and red-zone drills. They don’t include every practice, but rather a sampling of all the practice days. They should not be taken as absolute measures, but they are an interesting metric of how the two leading quarterbacks compare to each other.

21st: 4 of 9 for 28 yards, 2 TD.
18th: 7 of 13 for 69 yards, 1 INT
16th: 11 of 20 for 95 yards, 1 TD.
15th: 13 of 20 for 125 yards
12th: 6 of 11 for 100 yards, 1 INT.

The final tally for Ben was 41 of 73, 417 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT. That’s a QB rating of 112 with a 56% competition rate and 5.7 yards / attempt.

21st: 2 of 6 for 9 yards, 1 TD
18th: 5 of 6 for 65 yards, 2 TD
16th: 8 of 12 for 88 yards.
15th: 11 of 16 for 79 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
12th: Cowan 2 of 8 for 7 yards.

Adding all that up for Pat and you get 28 of 48, 248 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT. That gives Cowan a QB rating of 132 with a 58% completion rate with 5.2 yards / attempt .

Just from these numbers it looks like Olson took a significantly larger number of snaps. I don’t know if this was because he kept drives alive or if the coaches intentionally gave him more repetitions. In either case, it sounds like the coaches got to see a lot more of Ben during the camp.

Both guys have pretty similar accuracy numbers. Dorrell mentioned that Ben was more accurate during the scrimmages and that was one of the main reason he selected Ben as the starter. The above numbers don't seem to corroborate that assessment, but I don't have numbers from the last week of practice and Olson may have outperformed Cowan during that time.

"He's been more accurate as a passer, he's done the things we've asked him to do," Norvell said. "He's moved the team in scrimmages. Those are the things that he's done and, we'll continue to do that."

Olson also appeared to be more effective in red zone drills. He completed two TD passes in the drills on the 21st and they may have cemented his spot as the starter. The Bruins struggled to score touch downs last season while in the red zone and that appears to be an area of focus for this team in 2007.

Spring Game

In the spring game, both quarterbacks struggled against a swarming defense. Olson completed only 7 of 16 passes for 89 yards and one TD. Cowan 's numbers were even worse, 13 of 24 and 2 INT.

The encouraging thing is we stopped ourselves," Olson said. "We messed up on a few assignments, but I felt we've done really well this entire spring. We definitely have a lot to improve upon, and I'm excited about it"


(sources: LA Daily News, LA Times, Bruin Gold,, OC Register)