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June 22, 2007
Norvell heads west to coach among friends
Even from Lincoln, Neb., Jay Norvell always kept a close eye on UCLA.
In the press box before the Big 12 Championship game, Norvell - then the offensive coordinator for Nebraska - heard that the Bruins upset national championship hopeful USC 13-9.
UCLA ended a seven-game losing streak and Dorrell ended a personal three-game losing streak to the Bruins' rival, knocking the Trojans out of the national title game.
Less than a month after the Big 12 Championship game – which Nebraska lost to Oklahoma 21-7 – Norvell would pack up and take the West Coast offense back to California.
UCLA fired coordinator Jim Svoboda in January after the Bruins finished in the bottom half of the Pac-10 in scoring offense and total offense in his only season in Los Angeles.
Dorrell turned to his old friend to help right the ship for his veteran offense.
"I really paid attention to the direction he was going here," Norvell said. "Coach Dorrell and I have had a lot of similar experiences together. I've always had a wealth of respect for Coach Dorrell."
Now, the two will be on the same side at the Rose Bowl.
During their playing careers, Dorrell got the better Norvell. In the 1986 Rose Bowl, Dorrell - then a wide receiver for UCLA - caught three passes for 59 yards in the Bruins' 45-28 win of Iowa. Norvell was a safety for the Hawkeyes in that game.
"He's very humble. He never rubs that in," Norvell said. "I'm sure he's keeping that in his back pocket."
Once opponents, Dorrell and Norvell are hoping their coaching chemistry will translate on the field.
The members of the Bruins' brain trust are all relatively young: Dorrell is 43. Norvell is 44 and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker is 46. All three have had stints as NFL assistants.
"We're the same vintage," Norvell said. "We've all got a lot of experiences. That kind of dynamic is really something we have that's unique in college football."
Norvell didn't have much time to reflect on his new situation, however. He arrived with a critical decision under center.
Junior Ben Olson's long-awaited debut as a starter was cut short last year when a knee injury knocked him out for the season in the fifth game. Backup Patrick Cowan lost his first four starts, but won his next three - including the upset of USC.
Although the offense struggled during the spring, Olson was impressive enough to get the starting nod going into the fall.
Olson, 24, quickly reminded Norvell of a quarterback he recently tutored – Nebraska's Zac Taylor. The Cornhuskers' quarterback was the Big 12 offensive player of the year last season.
Stability has been hard to come by in Los Angeles, though. UCLA is on its third offensive coordinator in three years.
"It's been tough on the guys," running back Chris Markey said. "It's been hard to adjust to it. It's been kind of rough. … But Coach Norvell is a great coach, and the adjustment hasn't been as bad as it was in previous years."
Despite the change in leadership, the core of the offense has remained the same with Dorrell in charge. Norvell describes the offense not as his, but as the "UCLA system."
The Bruins hope their change in offensive coordinators will have the same effect as the last change. In one season, Walker turned the worst defense in the Pac-10 into one of the best.
Under Walker, UCLA led the Pac-10 in rush defense and finished second in total defense.
In Norvell's first season in Los Angeles, he has ample tools to stage a similar turnaround. The offense lost only one starter from last year's team, center Robert Chai.
"The defense carried us last year," Markey said. "I'm pretty positive this will be our year on offense. Coach Norvell coaches just like Coach Walker. The offense is going to catch up."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.