Oliver On The Spot

If there's one glaring difference between last year's ASU team and this year's, it is the play of the defense. A secondary that gave up a school record 27 passing touchdowns in 2001, seems light years ahead of last season. One of the catalysts of this encouraging trend is cornerback R.J. Oliver. In this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, we talked to second year corner about his play in 2002, and we also hear what Defensive Coordinator Brent Guy had to say about this fine sophomore.

At the beginning of fall camp, Coach Guy realized that Oliver was poised for a stellar year after a productive off-season conditioning program. "I think what started it with R.J. is the great summer he had." Says Guy, "He was one of the leaders in the weight room, and (Strength) Coach Kenn awarded him at the end of the conditioning program." Furthermore, the Sun Devils' Defensive Coordinator says that there's no substitute for experience. "He played a lot of snaps last year, and he understands the defense. Playing in a press position has helped him some. I think what really showed against Central Florida, for example, was that after the missed tackle that went for a touchdown, how he came back with four pass deflections, and one of them was huge in the red zone on third down...I'm sure he'll get better and better, and I'm happy he's only a sophomore."

Brent Guy can't feel too comfortable about the depth at corner with Emmanuel Franklin and most likely Lamar Baker out for the year. However, he's thankful that his most seasoned cornerback is there to offer some stability. "We know that with all those players out, we have a guy who can match up with the opponent's best receiver, and we know that we have a good chance against them. But we can't ask R.J. to play every snap, and we have to give him relief some times. We're still gonna continue to work on the other guys. Adrian Thomas did an admiral job last week. Josh Golden has only been here since Camp T, and he'll continue to get better."

R.J. Oliver is a little more humble when he talks about his play. "I've been playing well." Says the sophomore. "But there's always room for improvement. I feel that I get better every day. That's my main concern, is to always get better." One factor that helps him enhance his skills is lining up in practice against one the league's best receivers, ASU's Shaun McDonald. "Going against Shaun McDonald really does make you a better player every day. He's fast, he's quick, he has great lateral movement, and he's competitive. It's great going at him everyday in practice."

In the pass happy Pac-10, a first year corner is almost destined for some heartaches against some of the best receivers in the College Football. It was a grueling class in the school of hard knocks, but Oliver has made the most out of it. "Last year taught me to play hard and fast every chance you get. You can't take a rep off, because that play can change the whole momentum or even lose the game for you. You have to keep your focus the whole game. If you get beat once, you just have to forget about it right away, and be ready to play hard the next down." The cornerback believes that the defense as a whole has learned from the mistakes of the 2001 season. "Last year we just didn't play well, and maybe didn't believe in ourselves. We did a bad job of tackling, and we weren't concentrating on every play. This year we're just getting started. We're playing fast and concentrating on what we need to do. We're tackling better and playing with more confidence. This year we believe in ourselves, and now we're playing as one unit. When we play like that things will go well."

An effective pass rush up front is the cornerback's biggest ally when covering opposing wideouts. The Sun Devils' front four is making live miserable for signal callers, a fact that Oliver can't help but notice. " I do see a big difference from last year. Everybody is playing faster. When the pass rush is going, that allows the DB's to make more plays. Last year the pass rush got frustrated when the quarterback would snap the ball fast and complete the pass. This year, they're playing faster and not letting the quarterback make completions. We're just all helping each other out."

Speaking of helping out, Oliver's fellow corners, which are mostly inexperienced, will have to provide quality depth at this position. Thus, it would be fair to assume that Oliver is feeling more pressure this year to succeed. Nevertheless, the second year player is confident of his abilities and those of his teammates. "I'm just going out there trying to be a leader and play with more confidence. I just want to play at full speed, without hesitating. A lot of times when you get beat by a receiver it's more what you do and not what he does. Sometimes a receiver will make a good play, but a lot of it based on what you do at corner." And what about the perceived inexperience in the cornerbacks' depth chart? "I'm comfortable with all the corners and safeties I play with. They're all good players. They work hard, and are playing better every game. I don't feel pressure from the coaches to produce because I'm the only experienced corner, and I don't put pressure on myself. I'm expected to produce. It's my job to go out there and be my leader, so I just go out and do it."

As mentioned, Oliver has dedicated himself in the off-season conditioning program. It has helped be the fastest player on the team, running a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. According to the cornerback, the conditioning aspect of the game can never be overlooked. "It's important to be in shape. You can't afford not to be. It's a long season, and you can get fatigue mentally and physically. You just have to go out there and prepare yourself, so you won't break down. Every day, every practice…it's important to be prepared. That's what I believe in, and that's why I worked hard in the summer." The sophomore also recognizes that being such a workout warrior also helps to establish him as a leader, and inspires others to put more emphasis on improving physically.

Playing this week at San Diego State is chance for Oliver to go back to his hometown (he hails from Escondido, which is practically a suburb of San Diego.) "I love playing at home, and I'm excited to be back there and have all my friends and family watch me there. I love the atmosphere there, I love the weather…I just love everything about San Diego." The cornerback doesn't have the same affection towards the Aztecs' passing attack, which just like Central Florida's will keep him and the Sun Devils' defensive backfield working overtime. "The SDSU game will be similar to Central Florida. They're gonna come after us with the pass, but I think they'll be more competitive than Central Florida was. Against us Central Florida kinda gave up in the end, and San Diego State in their first two games showed that they fight the whole game. It's gonna be a tougher test for us, and we better bring our A game."

Sometimes you have to be thankful for what you have. While it's a given that ASU's cornerbacks aren't battle tested and could be exposed this season, the Sun Devils do still enjoy having a solid cornerback who should soon make a name for himself in the Pac-10. R.J. Oliver's play and dedication in the conditioning program has helped this relatively young player emerge as a leader not only amongst the cornerbacks but also on the entire team – as evident in his selection as a captain for this week's game. Having a short memory and rebounding from getting beat on a pass, is a vital perquisite for playing cornerback. Nevertheless, Oliver's long memory of the hardship he endured last year as part of a struggling defense won't be soon forgotten. That's why he and the entire defense are determined to elevate their game this season, which is creating new and more pleasant memories for the ASU fans who were once skeptical of this group.

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