On the surface, Marcus Oliver joined a dubious club. He didn’t intend to. It just happened. Technically, it was what didn’t happen that put the former Indiana linebacker in select company.
Oliver was one of 18 underclassmen to declare for the draft and not get an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine.
That became a reality in the first week of February when he, like every prospect does, called to found out his status for the event. The news was his first dose of next-level rejection.
“It did suck at first,” Oliver told Saturday Tradition. “But I’ve had to face things like this and it’s not about being the underdog or whatever. It’s about looking at everything for a purpose. I usually find the purpose of why things don’t happen and why things do happen. That really helped me with this.”
Those gears were actually in motion the night before Oliver found out his combine fate. Sure, there’s not a better showcase event in the pre-draft process than the combine. Getting to perform in front of and meet with all 32 NFL teams makes it more a job interview on steroids. Competing in that environment would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Oliver thought.
But something else crossed his mind — could he actually benefit from missing the combine?
After all, Oliver didn’t declare for the draft until a week before the underclassmen deadline in January. He also missed the Foster Farms Bowl with an undisclosed injury. January was usually a recovery month. Instead, he said he spent it speeding up his training to get ready for the combine. Of course he wanted an invite, but he also didn’t want to have a dud performance because he couldn’t maximize his training.
That led Oliver to say something you’ll rarely hear from an NFL prospect.
“It was better for me not to make it to the combine,” he said. “It gave me more time to just work on things I had to work on and just recover from the season. Really, it was just getting everything done without having to rush.”
IU has a late pro day (March 31), which means that Oliver will get a full three months to prepare for his first and only major evaluation.
After hearing he didn’t make the cut, he spent a week away from his training facility (InFocus) in Fishers, Ind. and went back to Bloomington. There, Oliver got the extra recovery time he needed. When he returned to Fishers after his week “off,” he ran even better times than he did before he left.
Oliver, who is at 100 percent, is down to a 4.69-second 40-yard dash. The fastest inside linebacker at last year’s combine, Clemson’s B.J. Goodson, ran a 4.69.
Running form had never been a priority for Oliver, but he knew that he needed to get quicker for his pro day. In high school and in college, he just did what came natural. Since he began training at InFocus, Oliver completely changed his form.
“That’s what I’m most excited about now is how I run now,” he said. “I’ve never really been a slow guy, but it’s just a matter of proving that. That’s what I have to prove is the 40.”
While Oliver is set on proving himself at the next level, he felt that he already did that in college. That was the driving force behind his decision to declare early. He said didn’t feel that another season in school was going to make a significant impact on his draft stock, and that he was ready for the next step.
In the last two seasons alone, Oliver racked up 208 tackles and 22 tackles for loss as the quarterback of the Hoosier defense. He made a little history, too. In 2015, Oliver became the first IU player to record 100 tackles in a season since 2009. In 2016, he became the first IU player to be named B1G Defensive Player of the Week since 2000.
It was Oliver’s performance at Maryland that earned him the honor. Fittingly, it was the result of two forced fumbles that day.
Oliver mastered the art of the forced fumble at IU. Well, he always had a knack for it. In one game at Hamilton High School (Ohio), Oliver forced FOUR fumbles. Since the start of the 2015 season, only Boston College’s Harold Landry forced more fumbles than Oliver. Not surprisingly, he finished his college career as the IU’s all-time leader in forced fumbles (12).
So it certainly wasn’t a lack of a production that prevented him from getting a combine invite.
Thanks to Tom Allen’s one-year turnaround, IU went from one of the worst defenses in the country to one of the B1G’s better units. That wasn’t a worthy justification for Oliver’s snub.
A 6-1, 240-pound inside linebacker running a 4.69-second 40-yard dash would certainly give Oliver the physical chops to belong in Indianapolis.
So why did he feel he didn’t make the combine cut?
“You’ve got to invite your Ohio State guys, your Michigan guys, your Michigan State guys and the big school guys. You also have to invite the little guys in that you don’t get to see as much,” he said. “They’re looking at other things than just ‘Who’s the best guy?’ That’s not how it all goes. They’re trying to figure out which guys to bring in and see that teams might have questions about. It’s a lot more than numbers.
“I’m not focused on why I didn’t get there or whatever else. There are different reasons than what I did do or what I didn’t do.”
Twenty-nine miles away from Oliver’s training facility in Fishers, the football world will be centered on all things combine at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend.
Oliver is still planning on making the quick drive down to Indianapolis. Why wouldn’t he? Even though he isn’t competing, he still wants to see the event. If logistics allow for it, he’d love a chance to meet with some NFL front offices.
But only after he gets a workout in, of course.
“It’s not gonna be a day off. I’m gonna get something in whether it’s stretching or something else,” Oliver said. “But I definitely want to see the atmosphere. It’s cool to see those things. It drives you and it puts that chip on your shoulder for something you didn’t get.”
Oliver will still get to perform in front of his fair share of NFL teams at IU’s pro day. Former IU teammate Dan Feeney is one of the top guard prospects and after Jordan Howard’s dominant rookie season as a fifth-round pick, there will be plenty of eyes on Devine Redding.
Defensive players usually aren’t the focus of IU’s pro day. The Hoosiers haven’t had a defensive player drafted since Jammie Kirlew and Ray Fisher were selected in the seventh round in 2010. IU hasn’t had an underclassman defender drafted in the 21st century, either.
That drought could’ve ended with Darius Latham last year. After leaving school early, he was a rare Indiana defender who did get a combine invite. Latham went undrafted, but he carved out a role and even started two games in his first NFL season with the Oakland Raiders.
Plenty of guys didn’t need the combine or the NFL draft to have next-level success. The question now is whether or not Oliver can become another name on that list.
That’s a club he wouldn’t mind joining.