An Oliver twist
Senior running back cements his place in Buffalo’s record books
People seem to forget about 2011 Branden Oliver. Before Khalil Mack was a projected top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the running back known as 'BoDozer' was The Guy around UB Stadium.
That year, Oliver set all-time school marks for rushing attempts (306), rushing yards (1,395), all-purpose yards (1,760) and 100-yard rushing games in a season (eight). He also had 13 touchdowns and 38 catches for 365 yards.
He was a miserable team's saving grace.
Opponents game planned for him, and they still couldn't slow Bo. The sophomore back had the unique combination of speed and power, agility and brawn.
Then last year, something unfortunate happened, as it often does: The star athlete suffered a debilitating injury. He went down with a grade-two MCL tear Sept. 19 against Kent State.
I remember that game well. I remember looking at Bo as he walked out of the locker room and knowing the season was in jeopardy, though the Bulls were 1-1 at that point. He was wearing sweats, his 32 jersey pulled over a hoodie, and staring at the ground as his father walked by his side. Oliver does not miss game action for small injuries; this, it was clear, was something serious.
He missed five full games and much of four others, and finished 2012 with 821 yards. He spent most of the year mentoring young back Devin Campbell.
Coming into this year, though he was named to several national preseason award watch lists, it seemed no pundits were talking about Bo Oliver. There were many NFL scouts around the stadium, but they were all there to watch Mack. People seemed to forget that Oliver might go down as the greatest offensive player in UB history.
The Guy had become just a guy.
But in reality, what had happened in 2012 that had devalued him so much? Oliver had suffered a very common injury among football players - though, because he is only 5-foot-8 (a generous listing), he was labeled "injury prone" - and had still led his team in rushing. He had averaged 5.5 yards per carry, a career best.
He had another terrific year.
I asked him on Media Day in August about his feelings coming into this year. "Be honest," I asked, "how much of a chip is on your shoulder?" He laughed and said it didn't matter much what other people thought, but that he learned a lot about life last year: he learned that God gives and takes away, and that his football ability could be taken away at any minute.
On Saturday, Oliver set UB's all-time school record for rushing yards with 216 on 43 carries.
"I feel like I'm more mature than I was two years ago," Oliver said. "I'm more composed. I know what to expect."
He passed the Green Bay Packers' James Starks for No. 1 on the list.
"That was a guy I always looked up to - still do," Oliver said.
When Oliver arrived on campus as a freshman, Starks told Oliver he would break his records - a prophecy that has been fulfilled.
"Congratulations to Bo Oliver," said head coach Jeff Quinn. "I mean, he had a monster day ... to break James Starks' record is very significant in our program because we know what a talented football player he is and what he meant to our program."
Mack, the star linebacker who has had NFL scouts lining up, has seen Oliver's development as closely as anyone.
"He's grown as a player over the years," Mack said. "He's a special guy, a special person, and he's got a special spirit."
I can think of few athletes more deserving of the honor, few better suited - as a player and as a person - to represent the school as one of its best football players of all-time.
As a player, he has an insatiable work ethic; the coaches routinely say he is the strongest guy on the team pound for pound. Go watch him run up the hill at the old football stadium - with the sled his dad gave him dragging behind - and you'll know what Bo is all about. His surprising strength gives Oliver the ability to drag linebackers twice his size for 4-5 extra yards - a skill he had before the injury and still boasts today. Fans saw it on display multiple times Saturday.
As a person, Oliver is one of my favorite people at UB. He is reserved - a man of few words - but friendly. He is as serious about his Christian faith as anything else - and he's serious about a lot. Try getting him to respond to a question without first thanking "[his] lord and savior, Jesus Christ." I'll bet you can't.
I went to church once with him while writing a feature on quarterback Chazz Anderson in 2011. It was funny seeing Oliver in a different setting - as focused on his hymnals as he is on scanning a defense before a play.
One thing is certain - Bo doesn't mess around. In football, in faith, in anything else in life. He has had this me-against-the-world mentality since he arrived in Amherst; he was not highly recruited out of high school. In fact, no Division I school except UB wanted him.
He has become Buffalo's all-time rushing leader based on sheer work ethic and unmatched focus. Those are traits that have always transcended what he lacks in size.
Perhaps now the scouts will start to remember.
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