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The position change that altered Stantley Thomas-Oliver's football path
FIU head coach Butch Davis noticed traits in practice that led him to believe the wideout would be more successful on defense. 
By Myles Simmons May 11, 2020

When Stantley Thomas-Oliver III arrived at Florida International back in 2016, he was a wide receiver. And he was a decent one, finishing third on the team in both receptions (35) and yards receiving (485) as a true freshman.

But after an 0-4 start, the FIU Panthers fired head coach Ron Turner and turned to Butch Davis to lead the program, a switch that ultimately changed Thomas-Oliver's football life.

Shortly after Davis, who was previously at Miami (FL), the Cleveland Browns and UNC, arrived at FIU, he noticed an issue in Thomas-Oliver's game. Davis saw a hard-working wideout with ideal size and speed, who could run routes and block. But one critical piece was missing.

"The thing that I felt like was not as consistent was catching the ball," Davis said during a recent phone interview. "If he was targeted 10 times, he'd catch seven of the 10, or he'd catch 10 of the 15 — you know, just the inconsistency with his hands."

So Thomas-Oliver slid down the depth chart, and during his sophomore year, had only one catch for four yards. But a career-altering moment happened late in that disappointing season.

One day after practice, receivers stayed to get in some extra work. Since the team's cornerbacks had left the field, Thomas-Oliver jumped over to the defensive side. He looked like a natural, and as Davis watched, he had an idea.

"I went to him and I said to him, 'You know, I've been doing this a long time, coached in the NFL watching kids, and I've think you've got a chance to play on the next level. But I really, truly believe that your future is being a defensive back,'" Davis recalled. "And I said, 'I want you to think about it and come back tomorrow and let me know what you think.'

"So he comes back the next day and he says, 'Coach, look, if you think that's where my future is, I'm 100 percent for it.' And he said, 'If it's going to help the team, I slam dunk will be able to do that.'"

Thomas-Oliver didn't know coaches were watching him at that practice. But he embraced the opportunity because it was also a way for him to get back on the field.

"I'd been having fun doing everything, playing around," Thomas-Oliver said. "I kind of got the hang of it a little bit and I was like, 'Yeah, I'd love to do it.'"

While Davis was immediately impressed by Thomas-Oliver's conversion, it wasn't necessarily a fast track into the defensive lineup since it happened so late in the season.

"Almost instantly, within two or three days, he was smothering receivers. He was covering them extraordinarily well," Davis said. "I wish that I would've done it midway through the 2017 season instead of waiting until the season was almost over.

"He wasn't going to go into games in 2017 because we only had like two regular-season games and the bowl game left and everything. But when he came to spring practice and he had the offseason to get bigger and stronger, you could tell immediately that in 2018, 2019 — he was going to play on the next level."

Stantley Thomas-Oliver Butch Davis

And what Davis saw in those first few practices told him all he needed to know about whether the switch would work.

"Never one time did he ever pout around because of being moved over and all that stuff," Davis said. "The day he went over there and he changed the color of the jersey in practice, he was locked in and he wanted to try to dominate — because he wanted to play.

"Stantley would pick out the best guy on the team and he was always trying to go against the best receiver — whether it was one-on-ones, competitive situations like that, blitz drills. Even when he didn't really know what he was doing, he still wanted to go against the best players."

Thomas-Oliver felt like he took to the position well initially, in some ways oversimplifying the change by thinking, "You know, corner is pretty much everything a receiver does just in reverse."

"Instead of going forward, you're going backwards," he said. "You're still breaking. You're still attacking the ball. So it was kind of a smooth transition for me."

And his experiences gave Thomas-Oliver some insight into how to best defend the position.

"Noticing splits, noticing down and distances and what types of concepts you would get. Reading body language of receivers when they're about to get the ball, or when the ball's in the air and he's about to jump and catch it — watching his eyes," he said. "Going against it, it's kind of like you already have the answers to the exam."

Still, Thomas-Oliver didn't believe he could truly thrive as a cornerback — and possibly make it to the pros — until FIU's eighth game in 2018, a 38-17 victory over Western Kentucky.

"I had a pretty big game, a breakout game," Thomas-Oliver said. "Throughout that whole season, I was playing well, doing everything I wanted to do. But that game, I excelled.

"I had four PBUs, an interception, about seven tackles, and I did well on special teams. So after that game, it kind of felt like I could do this for a living and play in the NFL."

As a seventh-round pick, Thomas-Oliver still has plenty of work to do before he makes the Panthers' initial 53-man roster. But Davis thinks the cornerback's work ethic will help propel him to success at the highest level.

"I know how he's going to work, and I know how he's going to take notes — he's going to sit in meetings and be coachable," Davis said. "I think all 32 teams came to our practices because we had a lot of guys who were potential free agents, draft choices and stuff. And they watched him and he was outstanding on special teams. He was probably the best gunner in all of Conference-USA, and he played on kickoff cover and did a lot of things on the punt pressure team."

Excelling on special teams is Thomas-Oliver's likeliest path to making the squad in 2020, and the demeanor Davis witnessed at FIU could also help decide Thomas-Oliver's potential in the league.

"He's very humble. He's a grinder," Davis said. "He's just going out — and I mean every single practice — and he's really trying to get better every day."

Parallax images courtesy of Mikey Berlfein/FIU Athletics and the Associated Press

View photos of Carolina's seventh-round draft pick, cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver, out of Florida International.

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