San Jose State tight end Josh Oliver had just three catches heading into the Spartans bowl game against Georgia State on Dec. 19. The freshman and Paso Robles graduate had slowly earned the coaches trust and carved out a spot as a blocking tight end. He left the pass catching to junior tight end Billy Freeman, one of the best tight ends in college football last season.
But when Freeman was injured in the first quarter of the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Oliver got his chance on a big third-down play with under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
“It was a play action roll out where the quarterback has the option to running it or throwing it,” Oliver said in a phone interview on Friday. “The outside linebacker bit hard on the run and he lobbed it up to me.”
Oliver used every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to leap and haul in the Kenny Potter pass for the first touchdown catch of his college career.
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The catch sealed the 27-16 comeback win.
“We weren’t even supposed to be there, so it was a really cool experience,” Oliver said. “It was another stage where you get to show your abilities and what you are capable of. It was a cool experience, one that I will cherish with me for a long time.”
San Jose State finished the season 5-7 and missed the 6-6 mark needed to quality for a bowl game, but a lack of bowl eligible teams and a good Academic Progress Rate (APR) allowed for Oliver and the Spartans to make the trip to Florida.
Not only was his team a long shot for a bowl after a regular season ending loss to Boise State, but Oliver wasn’t supposed to be catching passes at all. At Paso Robles, Oliver caught 42 passes for over 600 yards and eight touchdowns during his final two years, but it was his play as an all-league linebacker that caught the attention of San Jose State.
“They were recruiting me at first as a linebacker/defensive end and they were going to see how I did when I came in,” Oliver said. “But we were low on tight ends when I first came in due to injuries, so they threw me in right away and that’s the way I found my niche.”
At an athletic 250 pounds, Oliver impressed the Spartan coaches with his blocking abilities. Oliver played in all 13 games this season and started four times. He spent most of the year blocking for Tyler Ervin, who broke the school’s single season rushing record in 2015 with 1,601 yards.
“I never had to block much at Paso Robles, but when I came to San Jose State they had more blocking schemes and running schemes in the play book, so I had to learn how to block more,” Oliver said. “(Tight ends) Coach (Dan) Ferrigno helped teach me proper blocking footwork and the keys and fundamentals.”
Oliver got his first catch, a 24-yarder, in a 49-23 win over Fresno State in the fourth game of the season.
“It was a cool thing,” Oliver said. “It was a TV game and a big rivalry game, so everyone came out hyped, so to get the catch I was just stoked.”
Luckily, Oliver said, his parents were in the stands to see the catch and every other game he played in this season. He also had a familiar face with him on campus; good friend and long time teammate and Tribune County Football Player of the Year Bailey Gaither.
“We lived in the same dorm. We were best friends growing up, so we hung out a lot,” Oliver said of Gathier, who took a medical redshirt after a shoulder injury. “He’s back and running now and he is going to be back in fall camp.”
Oliver is back home in Paso Robles until he heads back to school Jan. 24.
“It was different,” Olive said of his first year. “I went from a tiny city to San Jose. Then getting used to a college playbook from a high school playbook was a tremendous step up. But the coaches helped me with a lot.”
“It was a big change but it was a pretty smooth transition.”