BBD Editor: Dan Hope
You probably already know about Khalil Mack, the star outside linebacker prospect who is set to become the University at Buffalo’s first-ever first-round pick. What you might not know is that his former college roommate could also be selected in this year’s draft.
Branden Oliver has been one of college football’s most productive running backs over the past few years, rushing for 3,751 yards and 33 touchdowns over his final three seasons for the Bulls.
Somehow, the hard-charging runner has been largely overlooked leading up to the draft.
Oliver’s only all-star game invite was to the little-known College All-Star Bowl, and he wasn’t invited to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
You could say, though, that Oliver’s always been an underdog. Like Mack, Oliver was a two-star recruit out of a Florida high school, and his only FBS scholarship offer came from Buffalo.
“I’m going through the same things over again that I went through in high school, so I know how to respond differently now that I’ve already been through it,” Oliver told Buffalo Bills Draft during an interview in March.
While Mack’s incredible physical skill set has enable him to emerge from obscurity, Oliver doesn’t have those same physical gifts. According to NFLDraftScout.com, Oliver measured in below 5’7” at Buffalo’s pro day March 4, and his reported 4.62-second 40-yard dash isn’t going to help his draft stock either.
Nonetheless, Oliver believes he can be an every-down back.
“I feel like I’m an all-purpose guy,” Oliver said. “I don’t like to put my game in a box. I can run inside, outside, I can catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Tale of the Tape
Height: 5’6 1/2”
Weight: 208 lbs
40-Yard Dash: 4.62 seconds
10-Yard Split: 1.58 seconds
Bench Press: 26 reps
*All measurables unofficial and courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com
+ Cuts smoothly and subtly
+ Can run through narrow lanes
+ Willing, capable pass blocker despite his lack of size
+ Takes on contact willingly, attacks with his pads downfield, typically falls forward at end of runs
+ Great vision and patience out of the backfield
+ Good balance through contact
+ Can slip underneath taller tacklers
- Short stature
- Subpar speed
- Doesn’t have an explosive burst out of the backfield
- Doesn’t have power to truck through defenders
- Sometimes too hesitant out of the backfield
- Lacks route-running experience as a receiver
- Gets buried by bigger defenders at the line of scrimmage
Oliver isn’t likely to be viewed as an every-down back by NFL teams because of his subpar physical tools, which will limit him against bigger, faster defenders at the next level.
You’re not going to see Oliver running away from many NFL defenders or trucking through them, but he didn’t do that frequently at Buffalo and was still consistently productive. If he is going to work his way onto the field and into production at the next level, he must continue to do the little things well and play to his strengths.
Oliver isn’t very explosive out of the backfield, but he has often been able to make up for it with his vision. He’s very good at not only finding holes, but squeezing his way into them.
While he isn’t much of a breakaway threat in the open field, Oliver consistently exhibited that he could extend runs. Despite his limited size, Oliver consistently fights through contact and falls forward at the end of runs. He is also a sharp cutter who does a great job of subtly working his way into downfield running lanes and angling himself away from defenders for extra yardage.
The following 33-yard rush versus Ohio University this past season, as seen in the Draft Breakdown video below, was a textbook example of Oliver using his vision and lateral agility to motor for a big gain. His cuts were acute but smooth, allowing him to keep his speed in the process and fake out a series of defenders.
It’s fair to say that most of the damage Oliver has done to Mid-American Conference opponents hasn’t come against NFL-caliber defenders, but he has still been productive and shown playmaking ability against stronger opponents.
In the following example versus Georgia in 2012, also courtesy of Draft Breakdown, Oliver did an effective job using his vision to find the open field. He then exploded downfield with some sharp cuts, including one directly in front of a defender, then dragged through a tackle for extra yards to finish with a 36-yard gain.
Oliver exhibits enough ability to be at least a semi-productive runner at the next level, but the biggest question about his pro potential could be how well he can contribute in passing situations.
He wasn’t asked to run many routes at Buffalo, so while he hasn’t made a big impact as a receiver, he’s largely unproven in that capacity.
Where Oliver could be a pleasant surprise is in pass protection. Short backs like Oliver are typically overmatched as blockers, and that could prove to be the case against more physically imposing defenders at the next level. Against collegiate opponents, however, Oliver consistently held his own in blitz pickup situations, showing good strength and technique while never backing away from a blocking opportunity.
Can Oliver’s Production Translate to the Next Level?
Asked about Oliver during Friday’s pre-draft luncheon, Buffalo Bills coordinator of college scouting Doug Majeski said he thinks the local tailback could make it in the NFL.
“Bo Oliver is a shorter, but thick, strong, fast running back that had good production. He’s a good blocker for a smaller statured guy,” Majeski said.
During his interview in March, Oliver said the Bills had not shown as much interest in him as some other teams, but said Bills running back coach Tyrone Wheatley put him through some drills at the Buffalo pro day, which was held at the Bills’ facility.
Thanks to Mack, that pro day was attended by representatives from all 32 NFL teams, and Oliver said that gave him an opportunity to capture the attention of new teams.
“It definitely helped me, honestly, just having 32 scouts there instead of 2 scouts just from him [Mack], and I get out and leave everything on the field and all the scouts have an eye on me also,” Oliver said. “He’s the one who got most of the attention there but when he got there and I left everything I had on the field, I had more eyes attended on me after what I did.”
Oliver also said he would have private workouts in April with the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins. While the Dolphins don’t have much need for another running back after signing Knowshon Moreno earlier this offseason, the Falcons could be in the market for a third-string running back in the late rounds of the draft.
In his running back rankings for this year’s NFL draft, BBD assistant editor Joe Marino graded Oliver as a sixth-round pick and as the 18th-best running back in this year’s draft class.
In actuality, that’s likely to be Oliver’s ceiling in the draft. But whether it be as a late-round pick or as an undrafted free agent, Oliver has a shot to work his way onto an NFL roster, especially if he can continue to perform well as a pass blocker and find a way to contribute on special teams, because of his running skill, toughness and consistently high effort.
“I’m going to give it everything that I’ve got every time that I step out onto the field,” Oliver said. “I’m going to prepare myself like it’s the Super Bowl, I prepare every game like it’s my last.”
The NFL hopeful made it clear he is relying upon his faith to lead him through the adversity he will face in his attempt to make it in professional football.
“Man looks at the appearance of a man but God looks at the heart, and my heart, you can’t measure,” Oliver said.