It was another industrious endeavour for Clayton Oliver against Essendon over the weekend. One of the most underrated players in the AFL throughout the last six weeks, the 19-year old delivered yet another remarkable blow on the stats sheet, recording 33 touches at an efficient rate of 87.9. And to note: 25 of his touches were handballs from underneath packs. His work, as it played out during the Demons 38-point win against the Bombers, can often go largely unnoticed.
In the second quarter he marked the ball inside the fifty-metre arc but offloaded it to Christian Petracca who finished the job and kicked an important goal. In the third term Oliver flicked out a handball from a pack that had formed 15-metres out from goal to Tom McDonald who kicked truly from close range. There was no mention of who set these goals up or how they were conjured, but such is the life of an unfamiliar in-and-under ball magnet. They go and just do, often unrewarded or not acknowledged. But after six games, Oliver is becoming much more than just your average second-year player: he's demonstrating Brownlow Medal qualities and could become the next AFL superstar.
At the start of this year, most critics had penciled in the usual suspects and midfield quintet of Patrick Dangerfield, Scott Pendlebury, Dustin Martin, Marcus Bontempelli and Josh Kennedy as the elite core of AFL ball winners. Only two years into his career – 19 games to be exact – Oliver has quietly squeezed himself into that group. Ever since Melbourne grabbed Oliver with pick no.4 in 2015, he overcame an injury riddled 2016 but still managed to collect 19 disposals per game. And even though Jesse Hogan's homesickness troubles late in the season appeared to overshadow any of the good things Oliver was doing, the teenager finished eighth overall in the Rising Star award for first-year players. What was eye-catching about that year, he averaged 13 handballs earned mostly from under the hood of contests and stoppages.
Fast forward to 2017, Oliver is quickly developing notoriety as a key engine-room man at the Demons, the kind of performer that operates on brute strength, poise under pressure and one that ignites possession play from stoppages on a regular basis. So far this year he leads the league in handballs with 137 (a staggering average of 22 per game), he's second in effective disposals with 154 and has collected 89 contested possessions which ranks him fifth in the competition behind the likes of Dangerfield, Kennedy, Sloane and Fyfe. Heading into this season, the Melbourne Football Club might have been thinking, let's get more games into Oliver, get him through the season injury free, and go from there. But it hasn't panned out that way. Oliver keeps on impressing with games of 33 disposals (v Essendon), 35 (v Carlton), and 36 (v St.Kilda). Most of those touches were handballs through heavy traffic, stoppages and centre bounces. In an era of football where the focus is largely on winning the ball in scrum-like conditions, Oliver's characteristics has him well placed to one day become a best and fairest winner and competition great.
"He's almost become my no.1 person to hit to," injured Demons ruckman Max Gawn told Fox Footy. "He's very, very clean in how he takes it out of the ruckman's hands and gets his hands free out of a tackle, which is something you can't really teach from a young age."
You'll notice almost immediately when you catch a glimpse of the redheaded Oliver, his imposing build. He stands at 6-foot-1, 88 kilos and he boasts a stocky, yet lean frame. He has speed and size and when his 19-year old body fills out, he's most likely going to evolve into a physique likened to a Michael Voss with the fleet footwork of Lenny Hayes. Having both acceleration and bulk has fanned Oliver's high quality grunt work. Most midfielders either have speed for the outside run or exquisite skills, some have size, but it's rare for a midfielder to own a large frame and built for hasty movements. Jobe Watson is a hulking figure but has concrete legs and Sam Mitchell's best work is delivery, decision-making and speed. But combine them together and you start to understand the make up of Clayton Oliver who is fast becoming a raging bull; the type who can bust open packs but also quickly manoeuvre through a logjam to effectively dispose of the ball. Sure, there's plenty of room for improvement and additions he'll need to add if he's potentially ever to become one of the greats, but at 19-years old, he already boasts some gifted conditions that makes him a must watch player.
A scary thought: despite being able to average 31 disposals thus far in 2017, Oliver still has room to evolve and touch up his game. He's showing signs of elitism but he's definitely not at the stage where we can start referring to him as a Voss. He can certainly be that kind of player with a decorated career – heck he could win a Brownlow in years to come – but he'd need to add some more tricks to his half empty bag. For one, Oliver's ball gathering habits revolve around one aspect of football: winning the inside ball. If he were to enhance his status, he'd need to improve his uncontested ball wins. Being a player that does the heavy-lifting around contest has lasting impacts on the body. If he wants a long career, he'd need to develop a running-outside game.
Oliver would also need to evolve and shift his efforts toward goal side and become a a midfielder that wins the hard ball but also drifts forward to kick goals. Other elites do this: Dangerfield, Bontempelli and Martin have all kicked 10 goals this season; Oliver is yet to get off the mark. He's only in his second season of AFL, so there's time for him to flourish into that defensive-minded goal kicker. But it's that equitable game plan that will not only see him play longer, but will get him noticed by umpires a whole lot more.
It's going to take a few more years for Oliver to assemble a bigger frame. If he continues to spend time under packs, he'll need it to brace the crunching contact and to avoid injury. But until then we can start to marvel at the things he's already doing as a kid. How many players in the league are manufactured like Oliver? Six-foot one. Clean hands. Effective user of the ball. Huge compete level. Cool head. In his first game for the Demons, he racked up 22 touches – 15 contested – with seven clearances. He only spent 58 per cent of the game on the field. Fox Footy's Tiarne Swersky said it was one of the best debuts in 15 years. Former Essendon great Scott Lucas said Oliver was the "real deal." He was already considered a hardworking kid with unrealized future in 2016 and now we're witnessing enormous production with elite returns, which makes his ceiling infinite.