WARNER ROBINS -- There was Isaiah Johnson, the big senior defensive lineman who has no trouble expressing himself, in the middle of the day in a hallway or on the field after a big win.
There was Willie Jordan, the punishing senior tailback with the quick smile who might be his team’s best spokesperson.
And there was the skinny sophomore who had yet to set foot between the white lines with the clock running during a Northside varsity football game.
The three spent plenty of time together working out during the summer, the two players who would play huge roles in the Eagles’ 2014 fortunes and that skinny sophomore in the race at quarterback behind two veterans.
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It was during those 90-degree days, as it turns out, that the raw quarterback would develop into the one who, as it turns out, proved able to put an offense on his not-yet-overly-broad shoulders and lead it to the GHSA Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
Northside being in the quarterfinals isn’t news. But nobody back in August would have predicted that accomplishment -- the Eagles face Glynn Academy on Friday night -- would be reached courtesy of the untested Tobias Oliver.
Yet that’s where Oliver and Northside are.
Throw in the fact that the skinny sophomore with no varsity experience became the starter very suddenly only a few days before the season opener against a quality Class AAAAAA team, and it only adds to the story line.
But the two old guys aren’t terribly surprised.
“I’d been telling him to prepare for this,” Jordan said. “You never know when your time is gonna come.”
Oliver’s time came on the Wednesday before North Cobb visited to open the season. Projected starter Jurmon Weaver came down with appendicitis and would be out for several weeks.
Oliver and senior Tanner Smith were battling for playing time, and Oliver had eased ahead during the race, still behind Weaver.
“I had worked all summer, so I had a lot of confidence,” Oliver said. “I was ready. Less sleep (that Thursday), but the next day, I was ready.”
Apparently he was.
Oliver was only 5-of-7 passing, albeit for 112 yards, but he ran 14 times for 76 yards and a touchdown while steering the Eagles to 502 yards on offense and a 38-20 win.
Johnson remembers that night well.
“(Offensive coordinator Chad) Alligood came to him during the first part of warm-ups, and he said, ‘You’re gonna be our starting quarterback. Nobody else,’ ” Johnson said. “And they had this long conversation. I was standing right there. I was listening.
“His face was just like this,” Johnson said, showing a blank and focused face. “He walked around the whole time, pregame meal, he was just thinking. He was quiet. He came out, and you see what he did, played awesome.”
Northside’s lone loss wasn’t because Oliver played like an untested sophomore suddenly swallowed up by pressure. It was a rough passing night -- 6-for-17, 78 yards, a touchdown and interception -- and decent rushing night for Oliver, who had 51 yards on 17 carries.
But Jones County made more plays count in the 45-37 decision Sept. 19 in Gray.
“We got outplayed that night,” Oliver said. “It was big loss. You think, ‘If I would’ve made this read, if I would have done this, we probably would have won.’ ”
It didn’t linger, for Oliver or the Eagles. He had a career-high 197 yards in the air a week later in Northside’s 55-0 win over Greenbrier, completing 9-of-12 with two touchdowns.
Three weeks later, he came of football age with a strong second half to lead Northside past Warner Robins 24-21.
“In the Warner Robins game, he made some good plays,” head coach Kevin Kinsler said. “It started showing then. He was probably a really nervous going into a big game like that. He’s 15 years old, playing in front of that kind of crowd for the first time.
“As the game went on, you could see his confidence growing.”
Three weeks after that, Oliver took over in the final 18 minutes and pulled the Eagles out of 13-point hole to beat Houston County 34-33 for the GHSA Region 2-AAAAA championship. And last week, the same kind of second half was part of the difference in a 30-21 win over Dalton.
“He’s so conscientious about doing a good job,” Kinsler said. “If anything that’s not sophomore-like, he understands how important the little things are and gets it down.
“A lot of times with a sophomore, they want to just go in and do it. He’s one that understand that there’s a process; you’ve got to learn your reads.”
Oliver, who has completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,071 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions while rushing for 603 yards and eight scores, has become quite the student of the game.
“He always asks questions,” Kinsler said. “You hear him talking with Coach Alligood, always asking about this, that and the other.”
Jordan has seen that all season.
“His IQ is very, very high,” he said. “When he got comfortable with the offense, his IQ level just went up. He’s making the reads. He’s really been pulling (us) through the last three or four games.”
And thus, a spot in the quarterfinals for the seventh time in the past 10 years. That history helps turn fear into a motivator, a process which started on that day when Weaver went to the hospital and Oliver to the starting lineup.
“I know they have high expectations,” Oliver said. “My biggest fear was letting them down, not meeting the expectations they had.”
Soon enough, that fear was taken care of, like 11 Northside opponents.