Catawba Football: Guard T.J. Olsen
SALISBURY — Catawba’s T.J. Olsen swears he’s from Pineville, but he could pass for Asgard’s most famous citizen — the mighty Thor.
Olsen didn’t lug a magic hammer to Tuesday’s press conference, but the 6-foot-4, 265-pound right guard did bring an impressive appetite and impressive stories.
Olsen wears No. 74 — the same number NFL All-Pro Merlin Olsen made famous for 15 years for the Los Angeles Rams — and his high school career sounds like something out of mythology.
“I was pretty bad at football in middle school and didn’t play for a long time,” Olsen said. “I only played my senior year in high school.”
That’s an astounding statement. Probably everyone else on the Catawba roster has been on a football field since he was a fourth-grader. It’s an even more astounding statement when you consider that Olsen played for perennial power Charlotte Catholic — a program that wins often and is known for old-school, road-grading offensive linemen.
“I was second string at first my senior year and I thought that was pretty great, but then I got the chance to play and did well,” Olsen said. “I was fortunate that season (2010) to be on a very good team. We went 14-1 and lost to Crest in the [3AA] state semifinals. I was lucky to be seen.”
He was seen in Kannapolis during Charlotte Catholic’s 45-7 win at A.L. Brown in the third round.
“That was a unique experience,” Olsen said. “People in cars are blowing their horns at you while you’re walking in, and the stadium is down a hill in a bowl with people’s houses all around it.”
Former Catawba assistant Bob Lancaster led the recruiting effort to get Olsen. Former head coach Chip Hester made the call to offer the late-blooming lineman a scholarship.
“He was 250 pounds then and he was a project, but we liked his broad shoulders, liked his frame, and knew he could get bigger and stronger,” Catawba offensive line coach Brian Hinson said. “And he has. He’s busted his rear end in the weight room.”
Even though his high school career was brief, the system prepared Olsen well for college.
“You have some things instilled in you at Charlotte Catholic,” Olsen said. “The core values, the discipline, the work ethic are things you take with you.”
Olsen went through a redshirt year in 2011 and was a medical redshirt in 2012 following knee surgery. That meant his college career was delayed almost as long as his prep career.
He’s been worth the wait. He looks more like a tight end than an offensive lineman and is unusually athletic for a guard. He became a starter in 2013 and is now a fixture in the Indians’ lineup, even though he’s still only a sophomore as far as football eligibility.
“He’s so athletic he can play with great pad level,” Hinson said. “When we played at Western Carolina, he’s running downfield, and when our receiver (tight end Tyler Hamilton) fumbled, T.J. swatted the ball and then recovered it. It was a big play at the time.
“It was a good thing he didn’t scoop the ball up and run it to the end zone because I would’ve gotten a penalty celebrating for him.”
Hinson said Catawba’s recruiting focus for offensive linemen has shifted from getting 300-pounders to getting mobile guys such as Olsen.
Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said Olsen played consistently in Saturday’s 35-33 loss to Carson-Newman.
“He had one holding call, but overall another solid game,” Walker said. “He’s playing well.”
The offensive line is where Catawba (2-2) has improved the most since 2013. It’s mostly been a matter of maturity and experience.
“Most of us came in at the same time and we’ve built unity and chemistry playing together,” Olsen said.
The challenge for Olsen has been improving as a blocker in pass protection. His run-blocking skills were highly developed in Charlotte Catholic’s option offense. Running is about all the Cougars did.
After years of struggling to run the ball efficiently, Olsen has helped Catawba find offensive balance.
The Indians can’t be labeled as a running or passing team. They rank 47th nationally in rushing (189 yards per game) and 48th in passing (268 yards per game).
Olsen also has been a factor for Catawba off the field. He’s received three straight Presidential Service Awards, makes the Dean’s List in the classroom, and serves as student body president.
“T.J. has got an opinion about everything and doesn’t mind sharing it,” Hinson said with a laugh. “He’s a great ambassador for the team and the school and he’s going to have a lot of success in life.”
Follow Mike London on Twitter at @mikelondonpost3.