Oliveira owns it
Blue Bombers running back has worked hard to rebound from early-season struggles
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Brady Oliveira will be the first to admit the run game struggled early on in the season. Being the one who touches the ball the most, he owns a sizeable piece of it.
Oliveira, playing in his first season as the feature running back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, also knew he was part of the solution. By remaining committed to his craft, including extra workout sessions outside of his mandated work hours, he’s starting to see the kind of results he envisioned when taking over full-time duties in the backfield.
“Obviously, at the beginning of the season it was rough out there,” Oliveira told the Free Press following the Bombers closed practice at IG Field Tuesday. “You see us now getting into a rhythm with things. I would definitely say just sticking with it and knowing that all those guys up front believe in me, and all my teammates in the locker room, the coaches, they believed in me and know what I can do. It was also getting some chunk runs in there and making some plays to build my confidence up and now that I’m consistently making those plays it’s just building on that confidence.”
Oliveira has never been shy about his abilities, ever since he arrived in Winnipeg as a rookie at the beginning of the 2019 season. He had just wrapped up a stellar collegiate career at the University of North Dakota, where he finished as the program’s 7th all-time leading rusher (2,822 yards), while earning All-Big-Sky Conference honours in 2016 and 2017 and being a finalist for the Jon Cornish Trophy in 2019, which is awarded to the most outstanding Canadian playing NCAA football.
He suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 of his rookie season, sidelining him for the remainder of the year. The 2020 campaign was then wiped out, followed by a 2021 season that once again featured Andrew Harris, who, like Oliveira, is a Winnipeg native.
It was only this season, after the Bombers decided to move on from Harris, who promptly signed with the Toronto Argonauts, that Oliveira finally got the shot he desperately wanted and believed he could handle. At just 24 – he turns 25 next Monday – having the spotlight shining directly on his wasn’t exactly an easy transition.
“I started some games last year, but it was lots of ups and downs for me over the season. When Andrew was hurt, I was in. Andrew’s back, so I’m out. That was very hard for me mentally,” Oliveira said. “On the flip side, last season I knew Andrew was always going to be there. So, I was able to almost play freely at times and I think people saw that. But I was still a young back, with so much to learn, and there still is lots to learn, but I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my game from last year to this year and every single game I’m getting better.”
Oliveira opened the season with 10 carries totalling just 17 yards — an average of just 1.7 yards pe run — in a home win over the Ottawa Redblacks. By Week 6, he had put forth some better efforts, but maxed out at 56 rushing yards, which he earned in a Week 3 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, also at home, while scoring his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Over the last three games, those totals have jumped to 62, 110 and 92 rushing yards, respectively. Oliveira has also reeled in all three of his passing targets over the last two games, for a combined 51 yards through the air.
“We had a couple conversations, he and I, and with some guys in the locker room, just about getting back to who he is,” Bombers first-year running backs coach Jason Hogan said. “He’s young. Andrew is gone and he’s trying to step up, with Johnny (Augustine), and trying to maybe play that perfect football and you just got to be yourself.”
He added: “These last couple of weeks, Brady’s been playing Brady football.”
Ask Oliveira to describe “Brady football” and his answer is as simple as the style itself: “being physical, delivering the blow and knowing that those big plays are going to happen.”
Returning to who he is from what he was trying to be took time. Oliveira said in wanting to be faster, to show fans he’s capable of busting for large runs — something he hasn’t really done in his pro career — he lost close to 15 pounds, which meant starting the season around 215.
He overestimated what the change would do for him, and he quickly realized if he wanted to excel at the next level he had to continue with the process that got him here. Understanding he’s a heavy, north-south runner, he put the weight back on, and over the last two weeks has had his playing weight back up to 225 pounds.
“It didn’t help me, and mentally, with me being the starter, I just wanted to show people something I wasn’t,” Oliveira said. “I learned that I just need to stick to who I am and what has gotten me this far in my football career.”
To be clear, Oliveira is acutely aware that a lot of his success, as well as the recent emergence of the run game, has not come without the help of his teammates.
He plays behind an offensive line that is among the best in the CFL, capable of pushing the line of scrimmage and creating holes for him to hit. If the receivers aren’t covering off their assignments — as seen last week, when Oliveira had a clear lane to score his second touchdown of the year against the Montreal Alouettes thanks in part to blocks from Nic Demski, Drew Wolitarsky and Dalton Schoen — he’s not talking about a steady turnaround.
It’s that love for his coaches and teammates, their commitment to improving every week, that has him wanting to do everything in his power to show them the kind of player he is. It’s a pressure he feels grateful to have rest on his shoulders, and he’s looking forward to what the future could hold.
“There’s definitely that mine-to-lose type of thing, and me being a Winnipegger, I want to play here for the rest of my career,” he said. “If I have the opportunity to play six, seven, eight more years — however long it is — I know this is home for me and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.