That’s the first time he was eligible to play for Georgia after signing with the seventh-ranked Bulldogs out of Harrison High School in Kennesaw. Oliver was a Parade Magazine first-team All-American and a USA Today second-team All-USA selection. He was a consensus top five talent among the nation’s defensive backs that season.
Those kind of players are expected, at least by some, to be college-ready right away.
Not just ready, but dominant. Oliver was neither.
A torn ACL in the GHSA state playoffs during his senior season at Harrison necessitated a redshirt in 2003. Even when he returned to the field in 2004, the adjustment took longer than he expected.
So Oliver’s breakout game didn’t come until Saturday. And that’s fine with his Georgia coaches.
“He’s still young,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “This is about the time you would see a kid with game experience start to pick it up.”
Oliver, a sophomore, had the second interception of his career and three tackles against South Carolina, including the final tackle of the game, when he got up off the ground after being blocked and knocked wide receiver Sidney Rice out of bounds short of a first down. His interception, on the Gamecocks' first possession of the second half, set up a 32-yard field goal that gave the Bulldogs the lead for good in a 17-15 victory.
“This was by far his best performance,” coach Mark Richt said.
It was more than the interception and decisive tackle that caught the coaches’ eyes. Martinez said Oliver excelled in his man-to-man coverage, his tackling and his assignments.
“Just the whole thing, he was really good,” Martinez said. “He’s always been a good player. He’d make a play here or there but he’s more consistent now. He was too up and down.”
That started to change this summer, said Martinez, who works with the Bulldogs’ secondary in practice.
“He came in with a different mind-set,” Martinez said. “He definitely had a great summer. It’s been a domino effect during the season.”
Paul Oliver remains a backup behind seniors Tim Jennings and DeMario Minter, but he will get more playing time based on his performance Saturday, Martinez said.
As for Oliver, he’s done worrying about things outside of his control, like what everyone else expects of him, he said. He learned the hazards of that in his first two seasons in Athens, when he fretted about not meeting the high expectations that accompanied him.
“I did coming in, but now I realize I need to take it step by step,” he said. “I just want to be a constant contributor to this defense, to this team.”