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Branden Oliver solves Chargers' run-game woes with breakout performance

SAN DIEGO -- Dwight Freeney knew Branden Oliver had something special during the first practice in offseason workouts.

The cat-quick running back made several San Diego defenders look silly in helmets and shorts while zig-zagging his way through the defense.

So count Freeney among the not-so-surprised when the undrafted rookie free agent out of Buffalo made the most of his opportunity in an easy, 31-0 victory over the visiting New York Jets on Sunday, finishing with 182 combined rushing and receiving yards.

It was the most combined yards by a San Diego running back since LaDainian Tomlinson finished with 197 yards against Kansas City on Dec. 2, 2007.

That’s pretty good company for Oliver.

“Whenever you can have a coming-out party for somebody, it’s a great thing,” Freeney said. “He’s a rookie, and we see it all the time in practice. It’s crazy. So we kind of expected it.

“You can’t teach that lean, that leverage, that movement and that height. You can’t see him.”

The Chargers entered Sunday’s game averaging a NFL-worst 2.4 yards per carry. But Oliver provided the spark San Diego’s run game needed, finishing with 114 yards on 19 carries, including a 15-yard burst through the middle of the Jets’ defense for a score.

Oliver also totaled four receptions for 68 yards, including a 50-yard reception and a 9-yard catch for a score.

San Diego’s offensive line finally provided room for the running backs to run. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oliver had 84 rushing yards before contact on Sunday, the most by a Charger in a game this season.

Oliver wasn’t hit in the backfield on any of his 19 rushes. Coming into the game, San Diego averaged a league-low 0.98 yards before contact per rush.

Even more impressive was that Oliver’s performance came against the NFL’s best run defense heading into Week 5.

The Jets came into the contest giving up just 63 rushing yards per game. But the Chargers finished with 162 yards on 40 carries, a healthy 4.1 yards per carry.

“We came in with the mentality to run the ball, even though they had the No. 1 defense,” Oliver said. “So whenever you get the opportunity to run the ball, the offensive line was hungry, and we just had to do what we had to do.”

Generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, Oliver has drawn comparisons to another explosive San Diego running back who wore No. 43 in his past: Darren Sproles. While both are smaller, compact backs with big-play ability, safety Eric Weddle said that comparison should stop there -- for now.

“That’s high praise,” Weddle said. “Sproles has done it for a long time at a high level. I’m sure Bo [Oliver] would say the same thing -- give him a few years before we start putting him in that conversation.

“But he’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever been around. For such a young guy, he just comes to work every day, and you can’t not pull for a guy like that.”

Oliver has things you can’t teach -- an innate ability to make defenders miss in the open field and the ability to accelerate to full speed in a few, quick steps. The Florida native said he developed his elusiveness from playing football against his older brothers in his backyard growing up.

“I’ve been running like that my whole life,” Oliver said. “God gave me the ability to do that in the backyard with my brothers. They’ve always been faster than me, so I’ve had to cut back in different ways and in certain situations.”

But it’s Oliver’s relentless work in the film room and learning the playbook that instilled confidence in veteran players such as Philip Rivers.

How much did the Chargers like Oliver? The organization parted ways with sixth-round draft choice Marion Grice during final roster cuts rather than risk losing Oliver to another team in free agency.

The Chargers placed Grice on the team’s practice squad, but eventually lost the former Arizona State player when the Arizona Cardinals signed him to the team’s active roster a few weeks ago.

“It’s just his preparation,” Rivers said about Oliver. “The way he works day in and day out. Playing running back in this system with what we do in the passing game, with what’s asked of them in protection, with as much as we throw them the ball, it’s a lot on a running back’s shoulders.”

Oliver has shown his broad shoulders are more than up for the task.

“Being an undrafted rookie free agent just makes it sweeter,” Oliver said. “We have guys like Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead -- there’s a lot of guys -- Malcom Floyd. You just got to keep working.”