Oliver Hungry to Prove Critics Wrong

Playing on a unit that was eighth in the conference on pass defense, while nursing a hamstring injury that lingered all year long, naturally translated into an extremely frustrating 2003 season for R.J. Oliver. The senior cornerback told DevilsDigest that he is more than eager to put last year aside, and implement the lessons learned into the upcoming campaign.

"I feel great," said R.J. Oliver about his physical health. "I feel good about the team, because we worked hard in the summer, and we have the right mentality going into the season. Physically, this is the best I've felt in ten months. Even during the spring my leg wasn't healed, and I was slow. I was still working through my injury and rehabbing. But now I feel explosive again and faster."

Oliver who played in 9 of 12 games last year, said that the begining of the summer marked the first time he was pain-free since last season. He did agree with the old football adage that there's much to be discovered not only when in the game, but also when not playing. "I learned a lot from the sidelines. You see a lot of small things that need to be done. When I was in the game, I sometimes concentrated more on the injury itself, and that hurt me and my teammates."

As with every injury, the mental rehabilitation can and is often just as demanding as the physical healing. "It's challenge," Oliver admitted. "It's my fourth year here, and I never missed a game to injury since last season. When I did come back, I thought I was gonna be right back at where I was at. That never happened, and I was actually slower and more fatigue. But now I feel great."

The firing of last year's cornerbacks' coach, Kevin Ramsey, was due in large part to the perception that this unit has underachieved. The cornerback, who had 27 tackles and two interceptions, does not dispute that observation. "Last year we gave up the least amount of passing touchdowns since I've been here, but with the talent we have in the secondary we could have played a lot better," Oliver remarked. "Last year we weren't hungry and we gave up at times. This year I'm hungry and the whole defense wants to be better. We're not gonna fold anymore. We have a lot of returning starters, and even our backups are hungry to play better. This defense will be exciting, and will be one of the best defenses I've been on for a while. We're gonna create a lot of turnovers and make plays."

Replacing Ramsey is Mark Carrier, a former NFL pro bowler, and his enthusiasm has not only been a welcomed sight to Oliver, but also to the rest of the team. "He's great," said the cornerback about his coach. "He's a competitor, he's aggressive…he came on with his cleats to the first practice (smile). He's been in the NFL for 11 years, and I learned a lot from him so far. The biggest thing he taught me is that you have to earn it every day. What you did the previous year means nothing. Every practice, every game, every down, you have to go out there and prove yourself."

The expectations of Carrier from the team's most experienced cornerback are crystal clear. In a previous DevilsDigest interview, the cornerbacks' coach said: "I put the burden on him to be our guy. I told him that right away." Thus, how does Oliver handle that significant onus put on him? "I want that challenge," he exclaimed. "I want players to look up at me. I've been on the team for a while, and I consider myself a leader. I learned from Jason Shivers how you go full speed on every down and you give your best effort. I want people to say ‘R.J. works hard' so they can follow my example."

The proverbial chip on the shoulder may be the most worn out cliché in sports, but to some extent that it will be the approach Oliver and his teammates on defense will take in 2004. "We have a lot to prove," he said. "We know our defense can play better, because we have too much talent. We're not gonna slack. We're gonna attack, be aggressive and out hit our opponents."

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