Chow steers new Bruins QBs through spring test-drive
PASADENA, Calif. -- Moments before UCLA's spring scrimmage began at the Rose Bowl on April 26, offensive coordinator Norm Chow, sitting in a booth on the third level of the three-story press box, picked up the red phone that connected to the sideline and summoned quarterback Kevin Craft.
"When you come off the field," Chow said, "people are going to be coming up to you and saying, 'I'm open.' You come right to the phone. This is nothing, right? Just play. Just play. You know what to do. Just let it rip. Catch your breath and play. We're counting on you."
Craft's life as a third-stringer -- meeting, drill, drill, drill, stand around, stand around, a few snaps and off to the showers -- screeched to a halt two days before the scrimmage. Cowan and Olson, in noncontact work, suffered severe injuries on consecutive plays. Cowan tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee and will miss the 2008 season. Olson broke a bone in his right foot and will be out for eight weeks.
Just like that, Craft became a starter. Cowan and Olson, both on crutches, watched the scrimmage from the sideline.
Coaches love to tell their backups, "You're one play away." A third-stringer is not one play away. He is two plays away. The odds are long enough that the starter will go down with an injury. The odds that he and his backup will go down are up there in Appalachian State winning in the Big House territory.
The odds that these two plays would happen in the final practice before the spring game? Think Mega Millions.
Or just think of Chow, brought in by new Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel after three years with the Tennessee Titans. The coach of three Heisman-winning quarterbacks and countless NFL stars-to-be over a 32-year career at BYU, NC State and USC found himself with a task no coordinator would ask for. Chow had 48 hours to prepare his third-, fourth- and fifth-string quarterbacks as if each had hopped two rungs up the depth chart.
As Neuheisel changed into a windbreaker before the scrimmage, he warned, "You're not going to see much with the third quarterback. We just want to get out of here alive."
All of which explains why Chow prepared the pep talk. No one expected Craft to win the job -- except Craft.
"I came in and he [Chow] told me he's going to give me all the opportunity I needed," Craft said. "He did, and my performance didn't reflect how I can play."
Craft began his collegiate career at San Diego State. As a redshirt freshman in 2006, he started five games. But he transferred to Mt. SAC, where last fall he threw for 4,231 yards and 44 touchdowns.
On the first series, Craft, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound reigning state juco offensive player of the year, netted a loss of 3 yards.
"Heck of a start," Chow said.
All Chow brought upstairs was a mechanical pencil and a handful of play sheets. He grabbed a Diet Coke from the little refrigerator in the booth when he arrived. In the two chairs to the left of Chow sat coaching interns Jake Peetz and Pat Girardi. To his right sat David Raih, who charted the play calls. Peetz and Raih are former walk-ons at Nebraska and Iowa, respectively. Girardi is a former co-captain at Columbia.
The logistics of a new staff working in a new press box illustrate all the moving parts in a football team's engine. Coaches take for granted that the communication will go smoothly from press box to sideline. It's spring practice for the headsets, too. UCLA has new audio equipment. Chow couldn't hear the sideline. Then Girardi informed Chow that he and offensive line coach Bob Palcic were on different channels. Chow didn't take it well.
After the first series, Chow said, "Get me Bob."
"You have to switch," Girardi said.
"I have to switch? Oh, we are screwed up here," Chow said. "I don't like this at all. I thought I could talk to Bob when I wanted to talk to him."
Chow, 62, is of a generation that flinches at the technological. He was mystified not so much that he must punch in a key code to gain entry to the coaches' locker room on campus, but that when he asked for the code, he was told he would receive it in an e-mail.
"Why can't you just tell it to me?" Chow asked.
His bafflement is not a question of intelligence. The number of offensive coordinators who have a doctorate in education might fit in a phone booth, if phone booths were as prevalent as they used to be. For all of his supposed genius with a play script in hand, the doctorate reveals another key to his success.
"You see Norm Chow and you get starstruck by him," Peetz said, "It's hard to learn from a guy that you feel is that far above you. The first thing he does is he cuts himself all the way down to your level. I remember one of the first things he said was, 'Look, guys, I'm not that smart. We're going to make this simple, because I can't do all that West Coast stuff. I'm not smart enough.' He's very humble."
Added Girardi, "It's refreshing for someone to be so grounded."
On the second series, Craft's lack of work with his first-string teammates nearly bit him. Wide receiver Terrence Austin ran a slant into the middle. Craft threw the pass leading Austin to the ball. With nickelback Alterraun Verner already there, Austin cut off his route. If Verner had focused on the ball instead of Austin, he would have intercepted the pass.
Out went Craft, in came Chris Forcier, a 6-3, 185-pound redshirt freshman who ran the scout team last fall. Forcier didn't stay in the pocket long enough for his cleats to touch the grass. This drove Chow to distraction. When Forcier took off on his first called pass, Chow said, "There he goes! There he goes! I don't know why. Just throw the ball."
The other quarterback is redshirt junior Osaar Rasshan, who started three games last season. After a sack and a bounced pass, Chow asked, "Can we get the first group in?"
Craft returned, his nerves settled. Before long, he drove the Bruins to a touchdown, which fullback Trevor Theriot scored from 7 yards out. It took Forcier longer to calm down. On his first series after the touchdown, Forcier got yanked after one play for Rasshan.
"Tell him I'm not going to play him," Chow said, "because he doesn't set his feet."
"When he sits in there, he knows how to throw a ball," Chow said.
Forcier finished 4-of-6 for 52 yards and one interception. It's safe to say Chow called more than six passes for him.
"You've got to trust yourself, trust the line, trust the people who are blocking for you," Forcier said. "Keep your eyes downfield on the receivers instead of worrying about the rush. I mean, I'm trying to learn the best I can. I'm definitely not dropping back thinking, 'I'm going to take off and run.' It's just one of those things that triggers in your mind."
Craft put together one scoring drive, although, after a first-and-goal at the 10, it took the offense six snaps to score. (Thank you, pass interference.) Craft threw three incompletions, two of which he forced into covered receivers, one a fade that landed well short of wide receiver Dominique Johnson.
And then, with a four-yard touchdown to Ketchum, peace reigned over the Rose Bowl, or at least the offensive coaches' booth.
"This is a lot better than I thought it was going to be," Chow said.
Raih informed Chow that the first team had run 45 plays and the second and third teams had run 37.
"How many touchdowns did the first team score?" Chow asked.
Two, and a field goal, he was told.
"That's about all we can get," Chow said. "Tell [defensive coordinator DeWayne] Walker that's it for us."
But not before Rasshan made some things happen. He completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Alex Pearlstone and finished 4-of-7 for 60 yards.
Craft's statistics (11-of-24, 95 yards, one touchdown, one interception) may have been the least impressive of the three quarterbacks'. But he appeared the most in command of the offense.
"There's just a couple of things where I know better and he [Chow] has taught me better than the reads I made, to hang in with it, get my footwork right, and drop back," Craft said. "It's an adjustment for me right now. He's told me the kind of work I have to do in the offseason. I'm excited to accept that challenge."
What did Chow tell him?
"Just to get acclimated with the offense, study it more, watch a lot of tape, throwing with the guys, getting the timing down so that I know where they're going to be. I'm not just dropping back and looking and thinking my way through it. I can react to what the defense is showing."
Chow assessed Craft's performance and laid out what he expected of him in the weeks to come.
"He came around at the end and made some nice decisions," Chow said. " he needs to spend his time in the film room, he needs to get used to the rhythm of the game. The key for him is to get in the film room."
NCAA rules prevent coaches from working with players until practice resumes in August. When the Bruins reconvene, Olson should be healthy and Craft should be competing to be his backup. When Chow tells Craft he's "one play away," he'll know exactly what his coach means.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.