"I'll keep fighting until I get my chance," he told PurpleWildcats.com Tuesday.
All he can do now is prepare, and the results are strong.
This offseason, Oliver, the redshirt junior quarterback, dropped 20 pounds to improve his running ability.
Last year, Kain Colter said Oliver had the best arm strength. But knowing Northwestern's history—and his potential for improvement—Oliver needed to round out his skillset.
He arrived on campus after being ranked the No. 51 quarterback in his class by Scout.com. His major weakness, analysts said, was his mobility. Although Oliver was known as a pocket passer, the Wildcats coaching staff still thought he could fit the mold.
Now here he is during spring practice: Oliver, taking No. 2 reps, runs frequent options and looks sharp in the process. It was his goal.
"I really focused on trying to slim down and work on my feet, my speed," Oliver said. "That was one area where I needed to improve. I'm learning the plays, knowing my reads and being able to react on the field."
For the past two seasons, Oliver has been the proverbial "odd man out." The third option behind Colter and Trevor Siemian, he waited his turn, and likely will again.
Pat Fitzgerald named Siemian his starting quarterback, for now, with nothing to suggest otherwise. But this only motivates Oliver, who maintains a close relationship with Siemian.
"I'm still thinking I can earn a position, and Trevor expects that out of me," he said. "We're best friends, so we go out there and duel it out every day."
In the case of Zack Oliver, patience might work. The odds-on favorite to start in 2015—not so far off—he can combine what he learned from Colter, Siemian and Dan Persa. Rather than being frustrated, he values the wait: "I'm definitely appreciative to wait for my opportunity."
There's also value to being the second option. Kain and Trevor used to play off of each other well, with Zack and Trevor now working to read defenses in practice.
"It's very important—being able to run a play and go back to Trevor and say, ‘What did you see on that?'" he said. "He does the same with me. The competition is there, we both know it, but we're there to help each other first."
After last year's chaotic 5-7 season, many hoped redshirt freshman Matt Alviti would step in and challenge Siemian. That day looks far off, with Alviti still learning the offense.
"We're trying to teach him as well as we can," Oliver said. "He's picking it up pretty good."
It may be overdue, but Oliver is the one picking up momentum during spring. It could be now, after an injury or even later. He's preparing for the opportunity.
"I'm definitely competing for a position right now," he said. "I'd like to get out there as much as I can."
Sooner or later, his time is coming.