Paul Oliver’s NFL career is off to an unexpected early start.
Without him, a Georgia secondary that was expected to be among the Southeastern Conference’s best is now more of a question mark.
The San Diego Chargers selected Oliver with a fourth-round pick in Thursday’s NFL Supplemental Draft – a positive turn for the former Bulldog cornerback who was to miss his senior season after being ruled academically ineligible in May.
Although he has already missed the Chargers’ summer minicamp and has little time to prepare before the team opens training camp on July 28, Oliver is excited to go to a team whose 14-2 regular-season record was the best in the AFC last year.
“The biggest thing for me was that I was picked by a legitimate Super Bowl contender and I could not be more excited about getting a chance to play for the Chargers,” Oliver said in a statement released by the university. “This marks the end of a great chapter of my life at Georgia and now the chance for a great start in San Diego.”
How Oliver fits into the Chargers’ plans as a rookie is unclear. Because of his late start, playing time may be scarce this season except as a possible nickel or dime back. The Chargers likely made the pick with an eye on the future, as starting cornerback Drayton Florence is in the final year of his contract and is not expected back after the season.
“We had the opportunity to get a good football player today, and we took it,” Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said on the team Web site, adding, “You know how we like depth. We’ll add Paul to the mix as a Charger and time will tell.”
The immediate future is just as uncertain for Georgia’s secondary, which will have difficulty replacing Oliver – a player ESPN analyst Todd McShay rated as the top cornerback in the 2008 draft before he was ruled ineligible.
Georgia has depth at cornerback, but little starting experience. Ramarcus Brown and Bryan Evans split the starts opposite Oliver last year, with Evans taking over late in the year and starting the final three games.
He and Asher Allen seem to be the leading contenders for starting spots, but Brown, Prince Miller, Thomas Flowers and possibly Donovan Baldwin will be in the mix when preseason camp opens next month. Only Brown and Evans have started a game.
Senior linebacker Brandon Miller said he’s waiting to see which of the young corners will assert themselves and stake claims on starting jobs.
“It’s a real big hole. I don’t know if they really get the picture right now that somebody’s got to step up and take the job, because (Oliver) was a key to the defense,” he said.
Brown’s 39 tackles ranked seventh on the team last year, but injuries and Evans’ emergence cost him the job late in the season. After a rocky starting debut against Mississippi State, Evans played well in his last three starts – the Bulldogs’ surprising consecutive wins over top-15 teams Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. He ended the year with 26 tackles, six pass breakups and a sack.
Flowers, the only senior in the bunch, was penciled in as a starter last year before he was suspended for the first two games and then suffered a season-ending foot injury in his first game back.
Allen and Prince Miller both played as true freshmen last year. Allen made 24 tackles, mostly as the team’s nickel back, and Miller posted 10 tackles and blocked a punt against Alabama-Birmingham that CJ Byrd returned for a touchdown.
The practice and game experience the youngsters enjoyed last season now seem all the more important for the Bulldogs, who have similar holes to fill at other defensive positions as well.
“Yeah (the reps were) real important, but I don’t think they knew that it was real important,” Brandon Miller said. “But right now, any rep they’re getting is real important because we don’t know who’s the starting cornerback – or really who the starting outside linebackers are.
“Everywhere, everything’s up for grabs right now,” he said.
WHAT’S THE SUPPLEMENTAL DRAFT? Started in 1977, the NFL’s Supplemental Draft is designed to accommodate players like Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver who were not part of the standard draft pool, but later became eligible because of special circumstances.
Oliver was ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season on May 17, nearly three weeks after the NFL’s standard seven-round draft.
By using a draft pick in the Supplemental Draft, a team forfeits an equivalent pick in the following year’s standard draft, so the San Diego Chargers essentially used their fourth-round pick for next season when they selected Oliver on Thursday.
Of the 11 players eligible to be picked on Thursday, only Oliver and Maryland offensive tackle Jared Gaither were selected.
The Baltimore Ravens used a fifth-round pick on Gaither, who was also academically ineligible.