Call him the reluctant superstar.
Chargers fans are calling rookie running back Branden Oliver a savior after he nearly single-handedly led Sunday’s comeback against the hated Oakland Raiders, scoring the winning touchdown with under two minutes left in a menacing road environment.
If he is the team’s next star in the making, we’re going to have to work on his interview skills.
“I mean yeah, kind of, sort of, I guess.”
That was Oliver’s first answer when he took the podium this week to talk about his newfound fame. Wait, what was the question?
Doesn’t matter. Oliver’s play on the field speaks for itself. That’s now two straight games with over 100 yards and a touchdown. On Sunday, his 101st and final yard was the most important. It came on a dive over the pile into the end zone, giving the Chargers a 31-28 that would hold up in the end.
Now the undrafted rookie from the University of Buffalo is getting praise from veterans and coaches alike.
“He’s a great player. He acts like a veteran,” 11th-year receiver Malcom Floyd said of Oliver. “He does a lot of extra stuff on and off the field to take care of his body.”
The praise isn’t lost on a guy who didn’t even know if he’d be on an NFL roster heading into training camp. He might not be here if it weren’t for a season-ending injury to Danny Woodhead and another that has kept Ryan Mathews out of the lineup for the past month.
“It feels great, honestly, to have the veterans talk like that,” Oliver said. “But I still have a lot of work to go.”
He put a full game’s worth of work into that last drive, which was a thing of beauty. The Chargers found themselves in a rare position this season: Trailing in the fourth quarter. In fact, the only other time they have been down in the final frame was the last two minutes of the season-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Since then, it’s been smooth sailing … until Sunday.
That’s when Oliver took over, reeling off runs of 12, 10 and 7 yards before the final plunge put them up for good.
“Branden Oliver had an outstanding game running the football,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “The last drive there, going in and punching a score, to score at the end was an outstanding way to finish the game. You always talk about running the ball in the end zone when you have an opportunity and we did a great job there.”
Now the job of lead back is his for the taking, at least until Mathews is healthy enough to get back on the field.
The big question everyone in the league has to be asking themselves is, why did nobody draft this guy? He set the school rushing record with 4,094 yards at Buffalo, leading them to a bowl game against San Diego State last year.
Oliver says he uses the slight it as motivation.
“Everybody wants to get drafted,” he said. “I’d be a liar to sit up here and tell you I didn’t want to get drafted. I wanted to be first pick. But it didn’t happen. But at the same time I woke up with a purpose every day. This was my desire since I was a kid.”
The diminutive star has found motivation his whole life. When you’re only 5-foot-6 ½ -- Oliver says he stopped growing somewhere around his junior year in high school – you gotta be quick and elusive.
“Since I was a little kid, I was chased around by my older brothers in the back yard,” he recalled. “They were older than me, and faster, so I had to learn how to duck underneath and cut different ways.”
Now the Bolts, who are tied for the best record in the league at 5-1, have Oliver to thank for a lot of their success.
“I ended up in the right place, and just continue to (be in) the right place and time,” he said.