Tobias Oliver’s progress at cornerback ‘almost ridiculous’

Georgia Tech cornerback Tobias Oliver breaks up a pass in a spring practice in March. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Whenever health and college athletics officials deem it appropriate for football to resume, the career of Georgia Tech’s Tobias Oliver is in position to take another dramatic turn. Oliver, whose career journey has included stops as heir apparent quarterback for former coach Paul Johnson, possible solution at quarterback for coach Geoff Collins and then wide receiver, could be a keeper at cornerback.

Oliver made the switch before spring practice. There are many reasons, not least of which was his performance in Tech’s truncated spring practice, that he may have found a spot where he can thrive.

“I think his progress was almost ridiculous,” cornerback Tre Swilling told the AJC. “It was kind of almost like he’d been playing the position for a year or two before.”

In the practices in March, Oliver played the position with seeming ease, dropping back in coverage, breaking on passes and getting his hands on multiple passes. His size (6-foot-2 and 190 pounds) made him a fit, too.

“He’s a very good athlete,” Swilling said. “He’s fast, he’s strong, he can jump, he’s smart. He has all the makeup and intangibles of a top corner. Obviously, he came in and made plays. I think by the time we stopped, he had the most, or was tied for the most, interceptions we had in practice.”

He also won over another leader of the Yellow Jackets defense, linebacker David Curry. While acknowledging that Oliver has a lot to grasp at cornerback – he played quarterback at Northside-Warner Robins High – Curry appreciated his determination to learn the position and his ability to make plays even as he was only starting out.

“(The offense) tried to pick on Tobias, and he held his ground very, very well,” Curry said. “As a defense, we were very pumped up for him.”

Whenever the preseason begins, Oliver will have competition for playing time with returnees Myles Sims and Zamari Walton, among others. Walton started 11 games at cornerback opposite Swilling and is on track to start for a third season in a row. Oliver can be counted to push hard for playing time.

“He’s a fierce competitor, he’s an unbelievable teammate, and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Curry said. “(If) he puts his mind to something, he’s going to excel at it.”

Another player who stood out in the spring was sophomore wide receiver Kalani Norris. Playing out of the slot, Norris was a frequent target for quarterbacks in 11-on-11 drills, consistently getting open both downfield and on underneath routes and demonstrating his trustworthiness.

“I think he’s very explosive as a football player,” Curry said. “One of the many guys on our team that we need to give him the ball in space and make something happen.”

He was dangerous both in using his speed to be a downfield threat and in his knack for working to get open. After mostly playing special teams in seven games last season as a freshman – he did not record any receptions – Norris was hard to miss in the abbreviated spring.

“He was one of those guys with the most production as far as the receiver group,” Swilling said. “He was bouncing around between the ‘A’ group and the ‘B’ group, so he was able to get different quarterbacks’ eyes. He was able to be a favorite in the slot and be able to get open and make a couple plays.”

Swilling had taken notice of Norris, from Miami, shortly after he arrived with most of the freshman class in June 2019. As Swilling put it, players from Florida “have a certain grit.” In a summer conditioning workout, as the freshmen were trying to keep up, Swilling picked him out to run with him. Having just arrived on campus, Norris wasn’t as conditioned as he would become, Swilling said, “but he’s never going to stop running, he’s never going to stop trying, and that’s one thing that stuck with me since he came in.”

Collins saw similar qualities during the team’s conditioning workouts in January and February. During those sessions, Norris “really, really showcased himself really well,” Collins said. “Work ethic, drive, determination, competitiveness, all those things.”

As a slot receiver, Norris, listed at 6-foot and 170 pounds, will have to push fellow sophomore Ahmarean Brown for snaps, and Brown merely was the most productive receiver on the team, with 21 catches for 396 yards and seven touchdowns.

As was the case for players across college football, Norris could have well used a full spring to continue to develop, not to mention Oliver.

But, with six practices, it was more than most teams got. And it was enough for Oliver and Norris to give reason to believe that they’ll have pronounced roles for the Jackets once games can commence.