Coach Bo: Oliver takes setback in stride, mentors young Campbell
Junior running back Branden Oliver was dominating opponents until he suffered a grade-two torn left MCL on Sept. 19 at home against Kent State. Photo Illustration by Haider Alidina
2 Corinthians 12:9 - My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Junior running back Branden Oliver was on his way to the best rushing season in UB history for the second straight year. On Sept. 19, on national television, the all-everything back exited UB's game against Kent State with a left-leg injury.
He missed the second half and his team lost, but the damage appeared minor. He had never missed more than two weeks in his life and was listed as day to day, expected to suit up the next weekend against UConn.
He has not played since. The Bulls have not won a game since he went down.
Until last weekend, Oliver's status remained day to day and nobody knew why he wasn't playing. The athletic department kept his status secretive to bewilder opponents. Oliver is in the final stages of recovering from a grade-two left MCL tear.
Essentially, he was the offense.
It seemed only an injury could slow Oliver, who was on pace to break his own school record for rushing yards. It would make sense for him to be frustrated, devastated, depressed. But that is not Oliver's style.
The star back - who was named to three national award watch-lists before the season and made first-team all-MAC last year - counters adversity with positivity. He says he relies on his Christian faith to get him through arduous times. He has taken the misfortune as a chance to guide explosive-but-inexperienced freshman Devin Campbell - the current starter who was fourth on UB's depth chart at the beginning of the season.
Judging by Campbell's performance, Oliver might have a future in coaching.
James 1:2-4 - Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
The Bulls' monumental struggles - punctuated by a 45-3 embarrassment at Northern Illinois two weeks ago and an uninspiring 20-6 loss against Pittsburgh in UB's homecoming game last Saturday - are no coincidence.
Oliver, who set the school's modern Division I record with 1,395 rushing yards last season, is clearly the Bulls' biggest offensive weapon. He had 425 yards through two and a half games. He was competing with the NCAA's best backs and could have won some national hardware, not to mention his NFL stock was burgeoning.
Then he got stuck between two defensive linemen on a draw play in the second quarter against Kent State. He said he should have gone down but fought for extra yards and tore his MCL as a result.
Sounds like enough to get a normal college athlete down. But Oliver doesn't see things like an everyday 21-year-old.
"It's hard watching on the sidelines, but I've just got to keep my faith and keep motivating my teammates," Oliver said. "I've just got to be patient. I know God has it all in his plan and something great is going to come out of it."
Proverbs 22:6 - Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Campbell was thrown into the fire after injuries to Oliver, back-up sophomore James Potts and third-string junior Brandon Murie. He has not disappointed. No true freshman in UB's modern Division I era had ever rushed for more than 100 yards in a game.
Campbell has done it twice.
"We feel good about where Devin is," said head coach Jeff Quinn after the Bulls' loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday. "He's performed as well as any true freshman I've coached at the running back position."
The young back said his success is thanks largely to Oliver.
"He's been guiding me along, keeping my head in it," Campbell said. "He teaches me my reads, how he did it and what he does in certain situations. It makes me feel really good, really comfortable on this team, to know that I have somebody who is mentoring me in a way that I can be just like him and be as successful as him."
Before Green Bay Packers running back James Starks left UB, he said he knew Oliver would break his rushing records. Now Oliver is passing on the tradition to Campbell.
Campbell thinks the two can complement each other when Oliver returns. The freshman said he has the speed and Oliver has the power and vision. Either can decoy and confuse the defense. Quinn is putting together a two-back system to integrate both backs.
"I came up here to get on the field in some way," Campbell said. "I knew Bo was the guy, he was the big-time player, so I just wanted to get on the field any way I could. I'm thankful I've gotten this opportunity."
Oliver's biggest advice for the freshman? He reminds Campbell of it constantly: attack the edge and don't be afraid to cut back.
"He has the speed to do it all," Oliver said. "It's been great to see his development."
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Campbell will likely be even more dangerous when he has put in time with the Bulls' world-class strength and conditioning coach, Zach Duval, who helped Oliver become the player he is today.
Quinn told Campbell to "make himself noticed" every day on the practice field. UB's coach knew the youngster was special before he ever stepped into UB Stadium.
"He's a very mature young man who comes from a great family," Quinn said. "I loved recruiting him just because he fit everything I look for in a young man: someone who understands the value of an education and work ethic and the demands this game at this level places on these kids.
"He's been able to handle it and go out there and show us his stuff. Given the opportunity, he took advantage of it."
Quinn's favorite moment of Campbell's season came on Oct. 6 at Ohio - a game in which Campbell rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown. A linebacker stepped right in front of Campbell, but the back lowered his shoulder and ran over the larger defenseman. Quinn said Campbell "pulled a Bo."
2 Corinthians 4:16 - Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.
Oliver limped through the hardest season of his life two years ago when he was a freshman. He ran for 336 yards and no touchdowns. He said he knew what he was capable of but just couldn't make it happen.
Today, it seems Oliver is right back where he was in 2010 - he has had to watch from the sidelines, as he recuperates, knowing his team would likely be sitting much prettier than 1-6 if he were healthy. The Bulls have not beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team this year.
Oliver can't do anything about it. He sees 2010 and 2012 as two completely different situations, though. The 5-foot-8 junior has embraced his responsibility as a role model - in good times and bad.
"I can coach Devin Campbell and help him out, so there's a big difference," Oliver said. "It's always hard watching, you know? You want to be out there with your brothers contributing, but I feel good because I can sit back and see what [the coaches] see. It's been a beneficial experience."
Oliver said there is one thing he can't wait to experience again: winning.
"[My teammates] keep asking me if I'm playing since I got hurt," Oliver said. "They ask me: 'Are you playing this week? Are you playing this week?' They want me to come back, but I just keep telling them: 'It's your turn, y'all gotta grind, it ain't all about one person.'"
Oliver is targeting Saturday's home game against conference powerhouse Toledo (7-1, 4-0 Mid-American Conference) for his return.
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