Kevin Toliver had surely played tackle football before.
The 8-year-old Toliver was excelling in Mighty Mite football, a division of the youth program in Jacksonville, Florida. He was so athletic, physical and competitive that his coaches swore he must have started playing tackle football as a 5-year-old in Tiny Mite.
“No sir, he’s never played tackle,” Toliver’s father, also named Kevin, told them.
Eleven years later, Toliver is in a similar situation as an inexperienced but talented athlete finally playing with the big boys. The true freshman cornerback hasn’t let that dissuade him — he has already claimed a starting spot in LSU’s star-studded secondary.
True freshmen playing big roles isn’t exactly a novelty for the Tigers. But Toliver’s rapid ascent up the depth chart surprised even his own father.
“It’s always a challenge in the beginning for a freshman coming out of high school going to play at a level that is probably 10 times greater,” the elder Toliver said. “(The difficulty is) the speed of the game, the playbook he has to endure, just getting to come together with his teammates and getting to know his coaches better. Just the whole life transition in itself.
“Fifty percent of me was shocked that he was able to endure and come away with it like that.”
Toliver has done more than just endure as the No. 6 Tigers (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern) prepared for a showdown with his home state school, No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0). He has thrived as the No. 2 cornerback in the nickel package, the Tigers’ alignment for more than 90 percent of their defensive snaps so far. The veterans in the secondary trust in Toliver’s abilities, which junior defensive back Dwayne Thomas said gives the freshman confidence.
“We believe in him, and he knows that we’re counting on him to do the right things and make big plays,” Thomas said. “That’s why he’s out there playing with that swagger.”
Toliver is skilled in coverage and in run support on the edge, as evident by his 14 total tackles (11 solo) and one tackle for loss. Opposing quarterbacks have been unable to feast on Toliver’s youth, and his physical coverage frustrates even veteran receivers.
Just ask the guys who run routes against him every day.
“He’s a physical cornerback,” said sophomore receiver Trey Quinn. “When I was going up against him in the summer, he had that physical mindset. He likes to put his hands on you. That’s probably something that separates him from other cornerbacks.”
He showed that off last week in a win over South Carolina. Through the first three quarters, the Gamecocks threw in his direction five times. His receiver caught one pass.
Quinn and junior receiver Travin Dural said it’s rare for true freshmen to play with such physicality. But Toliver’s father, who played cornerback himself in high school, knows how the 6-foot-2, 196-pounder got his mean streak.
“He probably got it from his dad,” he said with a laugh. “...Part of it is me, and part of it is his makeup. He loves to be physical.”
Physicality was just one trait passed down from father to son. At a young age Toliver developed a solid work ethic and methodical approach to whatever sport he played, be it baseball, softball, basketball or track. But Toliver ultimately chose football because, as his father puts it, “his heart was in it.”
Throughout Toliver’s youth and prep career, his coaches put him all over the field — quarterback, running back, tight end, receiver, linebacker, defensive back and special teams — to make the most of his athleticism. Toliver eventually settled down at cornerback at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville after displaying his quick hips and precise footwork, his father said.
He emerged as a highly coveted, five-star prospect, and recruiting service 247sports rated him the No. 8 player in the country in its Class of 2015 composite rankings.
Recruiting mail came flooding in from colleges all over the country.
“He was busy,” Toliver’s dad chuckled.
Despite being courted by numerous top-tier universities, Toliver originally verbally committed to LSU in November 2012 and remained so until national signing day.
The elder Toliver said LSU fit with his son’s morals and values and always “stayed true to their word.”
Toliver, an early enrollee, made a case for early playing time by picking off a pass during LSU’s spring game, and he has only gotten better since then.
“He’s a guy who’s very raw but came here in the spring and got a feel for it. Now you can tell he’s comfortable with what he’s doing,” said sophomore receiver Travin Dural. “He’s growing and getting better every day in practice. On Saturdays he’s playing with a lot of swagger and confidence.”
Before Toliver could show his stuff on Saturdays, he had to prove himself during preseason camp. He was locked in a three-way battle for a starting role with Thomas and sophomore Ed Paris.
Thomas is the No. 2 cornerback when LSU lines up in its base 4-3 defense, which the Tigers rarely run, but he shifts over to nickelback when Toliver fills his spot in the five-defensive back set.
Junior safety Rickey Jefferson said Toliver’s mentality is what gave — and still gives — him a leg up on the competition.
“He’s a young guy, but he takes more of a mature approach,” Jefferson said. “He doesn’t really play around too much. He’s serious about it. It’s all strictly business.”
He finally reaped the rewards of his business-like demeanor against Eastern Michigan on Oct. 3, grabbing the first interception of his career to seal the Tigers’ 44-22 win. Thomas said Toliver was like “a kid with joy” after the play. But Toliver’s personality is “laid back and kinda quiet,” his dad said.
He talks with his parents Thursday before the game and Sunday morning after they’ve gone to church. Their conversations center on life in general, but if the topic turns to football, the younger Toliver is usually the one who brought it up. Case in point: the cornerback couldn’t resist telling his old man about that interception against the Eagles.
Toliver, as a true freshman, is not available to speak with reporters.
“He said, ‘Dad, I finally got me one,’” Toliver’s father said.
For all he has done as a true freshman, Toliver isn’t perfect. Jefferson said he still makes the occasional rookie mistake, and he and his father have easy-going chats about any in-game blunder Toliver commits. Those conversations aren’t frequent, though.
With his physical style of play and intense maturity, Toliver has quickly become an important piece of LSU’s 14th-ranked defense, and he figures to remain one for quite some time.
“You can’t be scared when you’re out there on that island,” Jefferson said. “You have to be ready to bang bodies or get the ball when it gets thrown at you, and that’s what he does. I’m looking forward to what he does next.”