Tymir Oliver showed some leadership skills early in his career at West Catholic High School, even if you couldn't hear him most of the time.

"The funny part was, he wasn't like a tremendous vocal leader," Burrs coach Brian Fluck recalled Wednesday of Oliver, a junior defensive tackle for Illinois. "It was just the way he played, the way he practiced, the way he did the little things. All the kids followed him. He was quiet, but he showed his leadership on the field and off the field."

Oliver, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound anchor of the Fighting Illini defensive line that will be tested by 10th-ranked Penn State on Friday night, captained the Burrs his junior and senior seasons. He held the same honor last season as a sophomore, and echoed his high school coach's description of him.

"Honestly, I'm not super-duper vocal," he said. "I get my group together, our D-line, and I try to make sure that we're doing things right, really just lead by example, try to do everything right that I can. I think my coaches and teammates just see me do that, see that I come to work, and they respected that."

Oliver, a two-time high school all-state player, started 10 games at defensive tackle last year and was tied for second on the team with 4 ½ tackles for loss. This season, in three starts for Illinois (2-1), he is part of a defensive line that has batted down nine passes, having contributed two to the total.

Fighting Illini coach Lovie Smith said Oliver has been one of his team's best players.

"He's extremely strong, has captain-type leadership abilities, and that's what we need from an inside player," Smith said. "You know what you're going to get each week from him. He's also a guy you want representing the University of Illinois."

Tymir Oliver at a West Catholic practice in 2015.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Tymir Oliver at a West Catholic practice in 2015.

Oliver originally committed to Rutgers before his senior year of high school but reopened his recruitment after head coach Kyle Flood was fired after that season. Amid all the calls he received, he and his father decided to head out to Illinois.

"My dad liked it. I loved it," Oliver said. "We knew this was the place for me."

As it turned out, Illinois coach Bill Cubit — like Oliver, a native of Sharon Hill — was fired about six weeks after Oliver announced his commitment. But Oliver stayed after Smith retained defensive line coach Mike Phair, who had recruited him.

Regarding Penn State, Oliver said that coaches visited West Catholic "probably twice" but that he had little interest. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin seemed to wonder at his Tuesday teleconference why he didn't go after Oliver harder.

"Whenever I see that, I kind of look back and say, 'Why is there a guy from Philadelphia playing for Illinois and not Penn State?' " he said. "Obviously, we didn't do a good enough job because not only is he a good player, but he's a captain. We always revisit those things."

Now Oliver, who works out with Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney if both are home on break at the same time, gets a chance to line up against the Nittany Lions. He said the fact that Illinois is a big underdog at home gets the team's attention.

"I think we've got a chance to prove people wrong, honestly," he said. "Many people doubt us as 28-point underdogs on our own territory. They had us as underdogs for USF [last Saturday]. We're going to prove wrong everybody doubting us. As long as we believe in ourselves, that's all that matters."