Oliver’s dad was an NFL corner and top college decathlete.
This will shock you, but a five-year NFL cornerback who was also one of the best college decathletes of his time had a son who’s also really good at sports.
In 1992, Muhammad Oliver finished fourth at the NCAA decathlon championship. In addition to a track career at Oregon, Oliver played football for the Ducks and then spent a few years in the NFL. When he had a kid years later, he decided early that his son would play cornerback.
Fresh off a four-year run at Colorado, Isaiah Oliver is one of the 2018 NFL Draft’s best corner prospects. He’s built his own career atop the foundation of his dad’s teaching.
“Everything I learned originally was really from him,” Isaiah Oliver told SB Nation at the NFL Combine in March. “Growing up, I always knew I was going to be a corner because of him.”
His dad schooled him in all the position’s basics.
“That’s the position he played. So, just really my base technique of opening it and running or press technique, everything started with him,” Oliver said.
Now, Oliver’s physical gifts have made him a sought-after talent.
At the combine, he measured an almost even 6’, with some of the longest arms of any defensive back: 33.5 inches. He ran an average 40 at 4.5 seconds, but that was more impressive in light of him being one of the event’s bigger defensive backs. He had to carry 201 pounds on that run, a few more than most corners.
Oliver leverages that size when dealing with smaller receivers.
“Being able to get hands on receivers, so my arm length, my size in general,” he said. “Get hands on the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage as well as play the ball up in the air. So, when the ball’s up in the air, I know that I’m able to jump just as high as a wide receiver and then being taller with longer arms, I can get the ball out of their hands.”
Oliver is a prototypical outside cornerback. Nickelbacks who play against slot receivers have become more valuable, but NFL teams still crave players who can line up in press coverage and take away entire deep sectors of the field. Oliver’s game tape shows a player who rarely gets beaten deep and can run with outside receivers. One of his biggest challenges is a common one for bigger corners: changing directions quickly to stop routes over the middle and comebacks:
But with his size, Oliver has some pluck around the line of scrimmage. One of the best plays he made in a 2017 game against UCLA — and future top-pick QB Josh Rosen — was this shedding of a block to blow up a screen play when it appeared he’d been sealed off:
On the whole, he put up lockdown numbers:
In three years at Colorado, Isaiah Oliver never allowed more than 53.1% of his targets to be caught in a single season pic.twitter.com/7kio5kCLMj
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 30, 2018
For Oliver, progress is about refinement.
“The thing I need to work on the most, through talking with the teams, has been my hips,” he said. “So, whether that’s just like hip turns and opening up and running or whether it’s like hip height, keeping my hips low on my backpedal and things like that. It’s just technique, basically.”
Oliver’s had good coaching, both from the field and the sidelines. He spent years in CU’s secondary next to a pair of early picks in 2017, Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon. He had a former NFL defensive backs coach, Mike MacIntyre, as his college head coach. And for his first two years in Boulder, his coordinator was Jim Leavitt, a former safety who’s well regarded for his secondary coaching.
“When I got to Colorado, I felt like I had the athletic ability but I wasn’t really honed in on my technique as a corner yet,” he said. “So, that was one of the reasons I picked Colorado just because Coach Mac, he’s a DB guy, he coached DBs in the league. I knew he could take my game to the next level. And then it was just kind of an added benefit having those two guys here, Chido and Ahkello, they’re NFL talent-level DBs, so their knowledge of the game really was big for me.”
Through all of that, Oliver’s most constant resource hasn’t changed: His dad.
“He was always a guy that was coaching me in track and football,” Isaiah said. “So, that was big for me, and he still does it to this day. Not as much obviously, but yeah: I can still ask him questions about the game of football.”