Before Isaiah Oliver was projected as a first or second round pick in Thursday’s NFL Draft, the star defensive back could count on one hand the number of major schools that offered him a scholarship coming out of Goodyear, Arizona.
There were no offers from Arizona State or Arizona on the table, just two schools in neighboring states offered Oliver; besides Colorado, only New Mexico had noticed Oliver’s ability to be a disruptive defender.
Although the decision to commit to the University of Colorado was the only P5 option, it was also the star defensive back’s first choice and he would do it again in a heartbeat.
“I felt like Colorado was the best fit for me,” Oliver said. “Whether I had 50 offers to different schools across the country, or if I only had Colorado, I still feel like I would pick Colorado.”
Oliver’s decision to leave school early and pursue his dream of playing in the NFL was influenced, in part, by way of good advice from his former teammates. He’s the ninth player in CU history to opt out as a junior and will become the fourth draft selection from the Money Gang secondary in the past two years.
That secondary has quickly turned into an NFL factory with a steady group of elite defenders. NFL newcomers Ahkello Witherspoon, Tedric Thompson, Chidobe Awuzie helped lay the foundation with a blueprint passed down from coach Mike MacIntyre, who has been hands on with the secondary from the start of his time in Boulder.
“He would always be in our meeting rooms, watching film with us and even on the practice field when we did an individual period,” Oliver said about MacIntyre.
”All of us respected him because of his background from being in the NFL as a coach and playing in college.”
In a conference like the Pac-12, where success and failure are often determined by prolific offenses, there’s a pressing need for strong defensive secondaries. Over the past three years, Oliver allowed opponents an average completion percentage of 46.6%, which was among the top seven in the nation. At an even 6-feet-tall, Oliver’s compact yet lengthy frame, with a wingspan of over seven feet, presents a tough challenge to throw against. Combined with the all-around athleticism that he honed competing at CU as a decathlete, he can be a nightmare for opposing receivers.
But Oliver isn’t all brawn, of course. The hybrid 3-4 defense that Jim Leavitt brought to Colorado — later adopted by current defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot — built Oliver’s knowledge of multiple-scheme defenses that has helped prepare him for the NFL.
“Playing in a defense that was once used in an NFL system and playing in different coverages and fronts is the same thing that will happen at the next level,” Oliver says.
“It helped me a lot in terms of whether I’m playing press man, off-man zone — being able to do it all and take that to the next level.”
Isaiah has a unique father-son relationship with his Dad, Muhammad Oliver, because he was once in a position in life where Isaiah is now. He helped pave the way for his son as a dual-sport athlete in both track and football at Oregon. At the height of his collegiate career, Muhammad finished fourth in the decathlon at the 1992 NCAA Track and Field Championship and went on to play five seasons in the NFL as a cornerback. Like his father, , Isaiah was a three-time Arizona state track champion in the 110- and 330-meter hurdles and the 4x400 relay. He competed In track for two seasons at CU, and was a two-time All-Pac-12 selection in the decathlon.
Oliver has come a long way but he still remembers where he came from.
“I’ve always been myself and that’s how I was raised by my parents. Be respectful to everyone, be humble, and have humility—that’s the kind of person I am.”
In a world built on the foundations of controversy, Oliver understands his actions may affect how he is perceived.
“Just remember why we’re doing it and what the main purpose is in your profession. Whether that’s in sports or not — what drives them every day. I feel once you’re able to remember that, the decisions off the field — whether it’s right versus wrong — are pretty easy. You’ve got to be smart and know what not to do. It comes from when people are not focused or thinking about things.”
Preparing for the league
A total of eleven NFL teams conducted workouts with Oliver in the two months following February’s NFL combine. Among those expressing interest are the Denver Broncos, headed by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and former Buffs alum Matt Russell. With two picks in the top 50, Denver needs to find a replacement lockdown corner after trading All-Pro Aqib Talib to the Los Angeles Rams. Other teams on that list with connections to CU were the New Orleans Saints (Ken Crawley), Dallas Cowboys (Awuzie) and San Francisco 49ers (Witherspoon).
Two teams missing from that group were the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings. Both are currently in need of depth at the cornerback position with picks around where Oliver is projected to be drafted. Despite not having a workout with either teams, Oliver says he “had discussions with both.” The rest of the teams on the list include the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, AFC champion New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, and Oliver’s hometown favorite Arizona Cardinals. An ideal situation for Oliver would be playing in a 3-4 scheme with a team that wants to get after the quarterback and allow the secondary to play physical at the line of scrimmage to force quick throws.
Oliver’s plans for Thursday night are simple: he’s hosting a small gathering with friends and family to watch the draft and wait for one of the most important phone calls of his life. If Oliver is selected in the first round, he’ll be the first Buffaloes player to be taken that early since Nate Solder and Jimmy Smith were selected in 2011. Like the rest of us, he will be watching and waiting for his moment knowing he will make the most of his next opportunity, just like he has done so many times in the past.