Summer Sweat Yields Fall Glory for Oliver
Undersized running back disproves doubters, outworks opposition
Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Masses of fans who pack UB Stadium on Saturdays are left bewildered, asking one simple question: “How can somebody that small be that good?”
Branden Oliver doesn’t even need to think about his answer: “I just work harder.”
Oliver is a 5-foot-7-inch star from Miami, Fla. who came to Buffalo because no other Division I football coach would offer him a scholarship. He was just too little.
Now those coaches are kicking themselves.
Oliver struggled on and off the field as a freshman in 2010, but he made major changes in the summer of 2011.
Now he’s the star of Buffalo's offense.
Oliver is adamant that he’ll do anything to avoid another season like 2010. The Bulls finished 2-10 and Oliver ran for a mere 336 yards and no touchdowns.
Nothing was going right. He couldn’t balance class and the demanding workload that comes with being a Division I starting running back.
“Last year, people always asked me: ‘Why do you keep playing him?’ Well, that’s why – his effort,” said head coach Jeff Quinn. “He doesn’t make mistakes and he comes to practice every day with a mindset and a purpose: to get better. He doesn’t measure himself against others; he measures himself against himself, knowing he has greatness inside of him.”
It’s safe to say fans have already forgotten the Branden Oliver of 2010.
He’s acing tests and lighting up linebackers, dominating homework assignments and taking swing passes for six. Oliver has rushed for 853 yards and eight touchdowns so far this year, making him Buffalo’s second-leading scorer. Three weeks ago – following a three-touchdown, 179-yard performance against Ohio – Oliver was named the Mid-American Conference East Player of the Week. The Bulls won the trilling matchup 38-37, thanks largely to Oliver’s electrifying performance.
Oliver said he owes his success in the classroom to the experience he gained as a student-athlete last year. His success on the gridiron? He owes that to the hill at UB’s old football stadium.
Determination and Humility
His feet felt like 50-pound weights as he sprinted up the hill for the hundredth time, but Oliver kept telling himself to keep moving. Sweat showered his face as he pushed himself in the summer heat. The steep hill by itself wasn’t quite enough, so he forced himself to wear a 30-pound vest.
Most college football players push themselves to physical extremes in once-daily workouts. The really dedicated athletes work out twice a day. Oliver pulled three-a-days over the summer.
He wasn’t just running or lifting weights, though. That wouldn’t be his style.
Oliver and sophomore linebacker Khalil Mack – who’s received his own share of national recognition this year – put together the most challenging workout they could conceive. Every day, they’d go to the hill, the weight room, and the film room. And every day, Branden reminded himself of his motivation: last year.
“You could say that he’s an animal, but no matter what an animal does, it’s going to stop doing it,” Mack said. “There’s a difference – Branden will never stop. Just the other night he wanted to go over to the hill.”
Branden says he never wants to experience another season like 2010. Ever.
Oliver made drastic improvements with the help of Mack and the football team’s strength coach, Zack Duval.
“A normal athlete and Branden are two different things,” Duval said. “There isn’t enough weight room for him. He basically took over our weight room. Pound for pound, he’s the strongest on our team.”
When you ask Branden’s friends and family what he’s like as a football player, there’s only one word that keeps coming up – hardworking. And when you ask about his character, there’s one word everyone brings up – humble.
When Branden went away to school, his brother Edwin, Jr. told him humility was imperative. He said: “if you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you will succeed.”
Following Oliver's monster performance at Ohio and recognition as MAC East Player of the Week, Quinn said Oliver was quick to give the honor to his offensive linemen. He told them: “you guys did it.”
Overcoming His Size
Oliver has muscles like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his teammates make him look more like Danny DeVito.
His favorite player of all-time is Barry Sanders – a 5-foot-8-inch former Detroit Lions running back who was one of the best rushers in NFL history. Sanders was known for his shiftiness and ability to make defenders miss.
Branden, too, is known for his elusiveness. He frequently leaves defenders on their posteriors asking: “What just happened?”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing when I have the ball half the time. It just happens,” Oliver said.
His height is far from imposing, but when he meets a defender head-on, you’ll swear he turns into a Mack truck.
He frequently drags piles of opponents – some significantly bigger than he is – for three or four yards.