In trying to project the 2017 season for the Colorado football team, most national pundits point to the fact that the Buffaloes lost two NFL cornerbacks.
While that's true — Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon were selected in the NFL draft in April — it's often overlooked that the Buffs still have a potential NFL-caliber corner lurking in their secondary.
Junior Isaiah Oliver may not be getting much attention now, but he's expected to have an exceptional season for the Buffs, who had one of the best pass defenses in the country last year.
"He's as good as any of those guys that were here last year," said ShaDon Brown, CU's first-year secondary coach. "I'm going to lean on him heavily. If (the opposition) has got a great receiver, I'm just going to tell Isaiah to go play him because he can. I'll take him nine out of 10 times. If he's covering the best receiver, he's going to win nine of those."
The expectations on the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Oliver are high, but he's ready to meet them. After playing as CU's No. 3 corner a year ago, he said he's eager to be the top dog.
"Most definitely; that's the No. 1 thing you want as a corner," Oliver said. "You want to be able to step on the field, find the No. 1 receiver and absolutely just take him out of the game. That's something I look forward to."
On the field for 48 percent of CU's defensive plays last year, Oliver got experience covering top receivers, including Southern California star JuJu Smith-Schuster (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Washington's Dante Pettis, who is expected to be one of the best receivers in the country this year.
This year, Oliver could be on the field for nearly twice as many snaps as last year.
"If you can go up against those guys every single week and hold your own, you'll be just fine pretty much anywhere you go," Oliver said. "To be able to play corner and be on that island one-on-one, you have to trust in your abilities. You can't be scared of anything."
Oliver registered 25 tackles and an interception last year. He also had 13 pass breakups — matching the number Awuzie had in 400 more snaps.
Throughout the 2016 season, Oliver flashed the ability to be a top-notch corner. Also a decathlete for the CU track and field team, he's got exceptional athleticism that helps him excel.
"I've always believed that track just makes you a better athlete," he said. "I can see that every time I come back in the summer for football, just being in better condition, being faster, being able to jump higher and this and that."
Perhaps just as important as his physical ability, Oliver is emerging as a leader, as well.
"This summer, watching them run and things, he's very vocal," CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "Watching him today in practice he was very vocal. He's an excellent leader and he's played a lot of football."
CU needs Oliver to be a leader and be at his best, because there are question marks at the other cornerback positions.
In fact, with sophomore Anthony Julmisse currently suspended, Oliver is the only scholarship cornerback on the roster who has appeared in a game for the Buffs.
Sophomores Kevin George and Dante Wigley — both junior college transfers — and freshmen Ronnie Blackmon, Chris Miller, Derrion Rakestraw and Trey Udoffia are all competing for the other starting corner spot, as well as the starting position at nickel back. (If reinstated, Julmisse will factor into that mix, as well).
"I'm just looking for all those guys to step up and see what happens," Brown said.
Udoffia, who redshirted last year, appears to be the front-runner for the No. 2 spot. After a strong spring, Udoffia has been praised by coaches and teammates this offseason.
Brown said Udoffia needs to continue improving his ball skills, but added, "I think he's made great strides."
Oliver said Udoffia "has the athletic ability to be a great corner."
Regardless of who lines up at corner with Oliver, there's no question that Oliver is the leader of the group, and he likes the role.
"That's something I expected coming off of last year," he said. "Once you're a junior, you're no longer a young guy, so you have to be able to lead and bring those young guys up so that when they become juniors and seniors they can keep the program going."
More than anything, Oliver hopes to lead by example and prove that he can, indeed, be a lock-down corner.
"You just have to be able to be confident and be able to line up every play and say, 'I can beat that guy across from me,'" he said.