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After ‘catastrophic’ leg injury, Braelen Oliver in position to be a Gophers starting linebacker

The Douglasville, Ga., native missed the 2020 season. “It was a dark time,” he said Monday in his first media session as a Gopher.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers linebacker, Braelen Oliver, participates in drills during practice Monday, Aug. 16, 2022, at Athletes Village in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Bryson Rosell / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Tanner Morgan was fortunate.

Minnesota Gophers linebacker Braelen Oliver came free on a blitz during Monday’s practice and buzzed the team's quarterback — because laying even a finger on QBs in training camp is verboten. The only contact Oliver made was slapping a congratulatory low-five with defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Joe Rossi.

Oliver is playing with the first-team defense in preseason, another sign of an incredible comeback from a “catastrophic” leg injury in spring 2020. He tore multiple knee ligaments and his hamstring, dislocated his knee and had nerve damage going down his foot, causing foot drop, where lifting the foot can be a challenge.

The Douglasville, Ga., native missed the 2020 season. “It was a dark time,” he said Monday in his first media session as a Gopher.

When Oliver returned for his fourth collegiate season last fall, the amount of hardware attached to his leg wouldn’t have made it through TSA security.

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Oliver served primarily as a backup to Mariano Sori-Marin and Jack Gibbens a year ago, but still started seven games. He finished with 24 tackles, no sacks, one pass breakup and a forced fumble in all 13 games.

Oliver finished strong.

“I’ve just been very proud of him in how he’s gone about his business and how we’ve seen improvement week in and week out,” Rossi said last December before the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. “I think quite frankly he’s played his best game in the last game he played (vs. Wisconsin). Not only best game but best game since he’s been here.”

Oliver, who still wears the foot brace, shed the knee brace for the Nebraska win on Oct. 16. “It let me stop being scared and just take it off,” he shared.

The on-paper sack Oliver had against Morgan on Monday was reminiscent of Oliver’s breakout 2019 season. He had three sacks along with 22 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in 13 games. It was his blitzing that turned heads.

“First off, I’m just super proud of him as a person,” Rossi said Monday. “I’ve coached him for a while, and he’s been up and down at times. He’s through that. He’s really matured. He’s taken ownership of not only himself, but other guys on the team. He is playing really hard. He’s locked in in meetings. He’s studying film and then take some of the flashes that you’ve seen early in his career with making plays.

“He’s had sacks and big hits — things like that and now you combine it with the detail and the execution of the defense, and we are excited for him. Obviously he’s got a couple of weeks to go and a long season, but super pleased with where he’s at.”

At only 6-feet tall, Oliver said his focus is on shedding blocks in order to make himself a three-down linebacker. Off the field, he is a self-taught drawer, who likes to create cartoon and anime characters, and he’s also learning how to paint.

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That passion led to an internship with Gopher Digital Productions, where he assisted with the program’s video editing and graphic design. “I just fell in love with it,” Oliver said.

Oliver has gained perspective and maturity as he works to seal a starting spot; it’s something he gained from a family of athletes, including Alfie Hill, a former Purdue offensive lineman who had his career cut short due to a leg injury in the 1990s.

Hill’s message: “When you get (your opportunity), take full advantage of it.”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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