Kevin Olsen began the Charlotte 49ers’ spring football practice with plenty of confidence about his chances to become the team’s starting quarterback.
“I knew I’d be able to compete for the job,” Olsen said one recent afternoon in the 49ers’ Rose Football Center’s meeting room. “It was pretty much open from what the coaches told me. Everybody would have a fair shot. But I went in there and did what I knew I could do.”
It didn’t take long for Olsen to win that job: He will be under center when the 49ers open their season Sept. 1 at Louisville.
As Charlotte opens preseason practice at 6 p.m. Wednesday, hopes and expectations figure to be high for Olsen – again – as he takes charge of the 49ers’ offense and continues to resurrect a career that has been marred with off-field problems and disappointment.
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“I’m in a great spot because I can continue to go after my goals,” said Olsen, a 6-foot-3, 197-pound junior.
I’ve told him: there’s no shame in your journey. Just learn from your mistakes.
A four-star rated quarterback coming out of high school four years ago, Olsen essentially made a mess of his first two stops in college, with an accumulation of reported legal entanglements forcing him out of Miami and, less than a year later, broken team rules ending a brief stay at Towson.
But after a redemptive season at a junior college in California, Olsen landed with the 49ers, with whom he hopes to finish his final two years of eligibility.
The chances of that happening appear stronger because he will do so with his family nearby. His parents moved from New Jersey to Cornelius four years ago and his two older brothers – one of them Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen – also live in Charlotte.
“It’s kind of funny how things work out, how everything has come full circle for him,” Greg Olsen said. “Kevin’s overcome a lot to get to this point. He’s been on his own, but as a family we’ve been by his side through the good and the bad. I’ve told him: There’s no shame in your journey. Just learn from your mistakes.”
A football family
Like his older brothers, Kevin Olsen played for his father and coach Chris Olsen Sr. at Wayne Hills (N.J.) High. Kevin was far younger than Greg (by 10 years) and Chris Jr. (12). Kevin was a water boy and ball boy at Wayne Hills games, all the while watching his dad coach and his big brothers play.
“When I left for college, Kevin was 8,” said Greg. “So he was kind of raised after that as a single child, and that can be good or bad, I guess.”
Although Greg ended up at Miami and Chris Jr. at Virginia (both transferring after initially going to Notre Dame), Kevin would eventually be a more highly touted high school player. Despite missing several games with a broken foot during his senior season, Olsen threw for more than 3,400 yards in his career at Wayne Hills.
Kevin Olsen was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits coming out of high school and signed with Miami.
He would choose to play college ball at Miami over other schools such as Florida State, Arkansas, Michigan, Stanford and South Carolina.
Olsen redshirted at Miami in 2013, and appeared to have won the Hurricanes’ starting job for the following season. But he left school in September 2014 after reportedly being suspended multiple times for breaking team rules and failing a drug test. His final transgression at Miami, where he would never play a down, was being charged with DUI and possession of a fake or stolen identification.
Olsen then transferred to the Football Championship Subdivision’s Towson, but was thrown off the team in March 2015 for violating team rules, according to the Baltimore Sun. He still hadn’t taken a snap in a college football game.
Letting his family down
Olsen declined to talk specifically about what happened at Miami and Towson.
“It’s in the past,” Olsen said. “People are going to say stuff. It’s never as good or as bad as what you hear. I won’t dwell on the past. People who dwell on things never emerge from that low state. It’s got to stop. It’s been two years ago now.
“I guess you could say I regret it, probably more for putting my family, friends and coaching staff through it more than anything else. My biggest regret is what I put the people who care about me through over the last two years.”
Olsen surfaced last season at Riverside (Calif.) City College.
“I tell all the kids that have made a mistake somewhere else that you have a clean slate here,” Tigers coach Tom Craft told the Riverside Press-Enterprise after Olsen arrived. “You can change the way people think. … You can re-establish your reputation as a person and a player.”
Olsen made the most of the faith Craft showed him, throwing for 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns and completing 56.3 percent of his passes in nine games, sharing time at the position.
56.3 Olsen’s completion percentage last season at Riverside City College
Olsen played well enough that he attracted attention from programs such as San Jose State, Eastern Illinois and Colorado State.
“It wasn’t like high school, when he had his pick of many, many places,” Chris Olsen Sr. said.
The Charlotte 49ers also noticed Olsen. One night, he called his father back in Charlotte.
“He said, ‘Dad, there’s somebody from Charlotte in here talking about me, they’re interested in me,” Chris Olsen said.
Chris Olsen was aware the 49ers had recently started football, but knew nothing more than that about the program. He drove to UNC Charlotte’s campus and was impressed with the sparkling new football facilities and Richardson Stadium.
“I called Kevin and said, ‘You need to look at this place. Trust me on this,’ ” Chris Olsen said.
When Kevin came home for Christmas, he also toured the campus and met with coach Brad Lambert. He quickly signed with the 49ers.
“There’s a different kind of coaching environment at Charlotte and I sensed that,” Olsen said. “They made me feel welcome and that I would belong.”
Reviving the 49ers’ offense
In winning Charlotte’s quarterback job, Olsen beat out four other quarterbacks, including three – seniors Matt Johnson and Lee McNeill and junior Brooks Barden – who shared the position in 2015.
Now Olsen’s challenge is to not just lead, but help revive Charlotte’s offense, which was dominant under Johnson during the 49ers’ first two seasons as a Football Championship Subdivision program. But the offense regressed in 2015, Charlotte’s first in the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Conference USA.
But Olsen will work with an experienced offensive line, preseason all-conference running back Kalif Phillips and a deep receiving corps. Johnson has been shifted to running back and will likely take snaps out of the wildcat formation in short-yardage situations.
“(Olsen) adds an extra dynamic to what we do,” said senior receiver Austin Duke, the 49ers’ career leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. “He brings that sort of confidence and edge to the offense. He knows where the ball is supposed to go and he can get it there.”
Said Lambert: “He brings intangibles. That’s how it is with guys like Kevin. When there’s a situation where everybody in the stadium knows we’ve got to throw, he’s going to get it done.”
Lambert acknowledged that taking on Olsen was a risk.
“No question,” Lambert said a few days after Olsen signed with Charlotte. “The biggest thing is to give him a second opportunity in coming here. We think Kevin’s ready to make the next move to take this opportunity, otherwise we wouldn’t have signed him.”
But if there was a gamble involved in bringing in Olsen, Lambert said it’s paid off so far.
“It’s been a good decision all the way around,” Lambert said in July. “He’s been to a lot of different places and there’s no question that this is his last chance. Things haven’t gone his way before, but he’s been good since he’s been here. He’s got a good base around him and he’s really taken to the guys around him.”
The guys have taken to Olsen, too.
“When I first met him, I might have had a preconceived knowledge of his past,” said Duke. “But there are things we all might have done when we were younger that we wouldn’t do any more. And his last name probably magnified a lot of it.”
Thanks to big brother Greg, that last name – Olsen – is already prominent in the Charlotte area. Now each member of the family is within a few miles of each other (Chris Jr. works in the transportation logistics business). Kevin, who lives in an apartment near UNCC, said he tries to get to his parents’ house for dinner at least once a week.
“It’s certainly nice having Kevin close by,” said Chris Sr. “We’re not babysitting him, but as a parent it’s always good to be able to talk face to face.
“I coached for 39½ years. I would tell the kids the same things. You only get so many shots in life. So make the best of it if you’re lucky enough to get another chance.”