HOUSTON — Ed Oliver, the most disruptive defensive player in college football, a young man who is deeply aware of how gifted he is, fidgets in a chair that can barely hold his 290-pound frame. It is June 29, 57 days before Hurricane Harvey will make landfall along the Texas coast, blanket Houston with nearly four feet of rain and leave much of the state in turmoil.
Here, inside the University of Houston Athletics/Alumni Center, Oliver’s right foot taps the floor repeatedly, pushing his white Nikes up and down in a jackhammer cadence. His iPad, resting on his midsection that has no visible excess mass, bounces up and down. His gray iPhone twirls in his hand like a poker chip. The season cannot get here soon enough.
It is so easy to forget that Oliver, Houston’s star nose tackle, won’t turn 20 until December. As a freshman last season, he was named an All-American by just about every meaningful outlet. His 22.5 tackles for loss were tied for third in the nation. The next closest freshman finished with 12.5.
He speaks with purpose. He bobs up and down with that enormous smile, looking completely at ease as he matches his overwhelming confidence with the appropriate charm.
Like when he talks about his transition to the college game, which is supposed to be a thing. “It was nothing,” Oliver says. “I was ready for college my junior year in high school.”
Or his performance against eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson late last season. Although he left the game early with a knee injury, Oliver tormented the nation’s most explosive offensive player and finished with two sacks, three tackles for loss, three batted balls and a forced fumble.
“I do what I always did,” Oliver says.
On where he might have been drafted if he were allowed to leave after his freshman season, he says: “Anywhere in the first round, probably. We’re going off stats? First round. If you’re judging off football ability, first round.”
All the while, his foot never stops bouncing.
OLIVER, A SON of Houston, a young man who is hurting because his city is hurting, is much quieter and reserved than normal. It is Sept. 13, 21 days since Hurricane Harvey thrashed the Texas coast, circling the southwest portion of the state long enough to cause massive flooding and devastation to the area.
His body aches more than usual after Houston’s first game of the season in Week 2—a 19-16 victory at Arizona that Oliver says he was anxious for, in part because Houston had to cancel its first game of the year because of the storm. Oliver finished with a very Oliver-like 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal. In the second game, he added another tackle for loss and forced another fumble in a 38-3 win over Rice.
Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 4 overall defensive linemen in the country and No. 1 against run last season. One Big 12 head coach declared Oliver the best player in the country. Not just the best defensive lineman or defender—the best anywhere.
One AFC scout does little to refute this claim. “He was the best player on the field every time Houston played,” the scout says. “He was the guy from a prospect standpoint that you couldn’t take your eyes off. He can do it all.”
But rather than boast about his strong start and pick up where he left off, Oliver, who grew up just a short drive from the Houston campus, reflects on the last month.
Like the week his team spent in Austin, far away from the storm, following the devastation through social media and photos his mother sent each day from her Houston home, which managed to stay dry.
Or the feeling of driving back to Houston a week later in the darkness of night, peering out his bus window in hopes he could judge the destruction for himself.
“I think [the team drove back at night] on purpose,” Oliver says. “You couldn’t see much. It really doesn’t hit you until you see it with your own eyes.”
Or the Saturday he spent unloading a truckload of supplies when they arrived back home. And the next day he spent inside his uncle’s old home, helping him gut the unsalvageable. Unlike so many, Oliver says his family is doing fine.
Although nothing since late June has gone as he expected, one thing that hasn’t changed is his enviable skill set and desire to convince the rest of the world that he is the best football player on the planet.
“I’ve got better since last year,” he says, his voice finally perking up. “Everything is right where it is supposed to be.”
BUT FIRST, THE horses. Their names are Caledonia, Oreo, Coffee and Sugar, and they are largely responsible for the person and player Oliver is today.
Before he could relate to people or football, he could relate to horses. At the age of nine, he shared his passion with his father, Ed Oliver Sr. A month later, Oliver Sr. came home with Caledonia, a beautiful red mare. His son quit football for a while when Caledonia arrived. He wanted to be with his new pet instead.
At the time, school didn’t come easily. In the classroom, he had a hard time sitting still, especially behind the confines of a desk.
“I was a bad kid,” Oliver says. “Always in trouble. The horses were my escape. With them, it was just different.”
So he rode and rode. Eventually, he ditched the saddle entirely. Over the years, he and his father purchased more. Oreo, according to Oliver, is a lot like him. “I feel like we fight like siblings,” he says.
When he misbehaved, his father would limit his time with the animals. As he grew older, the passion for the animals didn’t wane. His father now lives in Louisiana with the horses, and Oliver rides them each time he visits.
“Ed was kind of different,” Marcus Oliver, Ed’s older brother says. “He liked horses more than he liked football. Now I think he treats them the same. He loves both.”
Marcus is a senior offensive lineman at Houston and a legitimate NFL prospect in his own right. His stardom did not come as easily as it has for his younger brother.
They also fought like brothers growing up, bonding with age. Together, they built a barn with their father. Although they are years apart, Marcus views Ed as his twin.
When it came to football, Marcus never forced the game on his younger sibling. When the interest finally took, he was happy to serve as a guide. It was here perhaps that the flashes of potential began. As a seventh-grader at Edwin M. Wells Middle School in Houston, the younger Oliver attended a camp hosted by the local high school coaches.
“It was, ‘Holy s–t’ on every rep,” says A.J. Blum, who coached Oliver at Westfield High School before taking a job as Houston’s defensive line coach. “I knew then he would be the next one.”
Having coached more than 30 defensive linemen who eventually played in college, special talents were not unique for Blum. But this one was different in every way, from his music—a mix of rap and country, these days a combination of Boosie Badazz and Zac Brown Band—to his physical makeup.
Unlike many interior defensive linemen, Oliver has never carried an extra pound if he didn’t have to. He was bigger than most growing up, although he’s always worn those pounds differently.
“I never wanted to be a fat D-lineman,” he says pointing to his nonexistent gut. “I don’t think I need to be. If you’re stronger and faster than them, you should be better than them.”
THEY STILL TALK about the night—Oct. 24, 2014. That’s when a 275-pound teenager casually picked up a fumble in his own end zone at Dekaney High School and ran 101 yards in the other direction like no 275-pound teenager should.
Prior to this moment, Oliver wasn’t exactly a secret. After his freshman season at Westfield, he received his first scholarship offer from Oklahoma. But in a matter of 30 seconds, the defensive lineman who moonlighted at running back on occasion showcased an impossible repertoire.
As the touchdowns, sacks and relentless pursuits of quarterbacks accumulated, so did the recognition. By his senior season, Oliver was labeled as a bona fide 5-star talent by every recruiting outlet.
The mail came as expected. Lots of it. But rather than save the artifacts universities sent as keepsakes for later in life like many prized recruits do, Oliver would drop these items off on his coach’s desk for him to discard.
“He didn’t want that stuff,” Blum says. “He didn’t even have a cell phone. He never was impressed with the glitz and glamor—the shiny helmets and the massive stadiums and cool lockers. He was like no other defensive lineman I ever coached.”
At the same time, Oliver was mindful of his recruiting standing. To this day, he is fueled by the fact that he was not Scout.com’s No. 1 player in the nation.
That constant edge has been his driving light, even if it borders on obsession. During the end of his senior year, Oliver watched his soon-to-be former teammates go through the ritual of completing one-rep maximum lifts during spring football.
Oliver asked the staff keep the heaviest weight from each station on the rack. When each player had posted his max on the squat, power clean, bench press and incline-bench press, Oliver walked up to the bar and unceremoniously completed one stress-free rep before walking out of the gym.
FROM A LOUNGE chair in his Houston office, a chair that belonged to his former boss less than one year ago, coach Major Applewhite is taking a trip back in time to the Westfield weight room that Oliver turned into his own personal showcase.
It was there that Applewhite, freshly hired by first-year head coach Tom Herman to be Houston’s offensive coordinator, first laid eyes on Oliver, who he mistook for someone too lean to be a defensive end.
“He looked like he was 245 pounds,” Applewhite recalls.
While he originally made the trip to Westfield to recruit dual-threat quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, Applewhite returned to his office and threw on the tape of the defensive lineman.
“This guy was Malcolm Brown,” Applewhite says, citing the gifted defensive tackle he played with at Texas. “This was a 290-pound kid who moves like an inside linebacker.”
Houston was hopeful Oliver’s desire to play with his brother and in his hometown would lead him to the Cougars, and, indeed, he committed to the school in the spring of 2015.
As thrilled as the program was to get him, there was an undeniable reality that lingered in the air: Players like these don’t come to Houston. They join the SEC and chase championships. They leap into NFL pipelines. They go to places with other five-star players.
Texas wanted him. So did Oklahoma. LSU, a team Oliver is not shy in saying he thought long and hard about, nearly landed his commitment.
“He’s a lot like some of the Tigers that I coached,” former LSU head coach Les Miles says of Oliver. “He would have fit in at LSU so well.”
Ultimately, Oliver stuck with his commitment. He loved the idea of playing for his home city, he loved Tom Herman and he loved his brother.
“I was going to do what I wanted to do,” Oliver says. “Regardless of how it happened, I was going to play college football with my brother whether it was at Houston or LSU or somewhere else. Wherever we were going to go, we were going to go together.”
IT CANNOT BE stressed enough how miserable this man is to block. He is lean but still powerful. He is powerful but still quick. He is quick but still ferocious and angry enough to do something that goes beyond his physical advantages, of which he has most.
Without his pads on, it becomes clear that he presents a unique matchup problem. Not just with a single team or type of offense, but among offensive lineman so accustomed to going up against what are normally clones of themselves.
So just imagine what it was like to be a Houston lineman seeing something like Oliver for the first time up close. Last fall, the coaching staff put Oliver on the second string defense for the first few days of practice. To Oliver, and to those dealing with him for the first time, these were perhaps the longest 72 hours of their lives.
“I’ve never been so angry,” he adds. “I tried to maul everyone.”
Within days, Oliver was with the starters and became the centerpiece of the defense. The decision came in part because Oliver single-handedly made life miserable on the first-team offense.
Applewhite wanted to see the first group have success. This freshman, fewer than 48 hours into his collegiate career, was disrupting an offense that scored more touchdowns than all but four teams nationwide the previous season.
A few days later, Applewhite thought he drew up the perfect play. The plan was to get a running back in space and force someone out of position to contain him.
“The problem was that he was being covered by a 285-pound freaking nose guard, and he was being covered really well,” Applewhite says. “He was on his hip like a linebacker.”
In 2016, Oliver helped Houston conquer Oklahoma and Louisville. Four of his five sacks on the year came in those two games.
While many staffs would be concerned with the possibility of a sophomore slump, Oliver provided no reason to worry. Instead of running against fellow linemen in practice, Oliver pushed to run against linebackers and tight ends.
“There’s nothing mellow about Ed,” Applewhite says. “There is no off switch, and I love it. I love his energy and love the way he practices. Our guys see that one of the most nationally recognized players in the country is going hard every day. He goes really, really hard.”
During last season, the coaches toyed with using Oliver at running back in goal-line situations. The play was 22 Crunch, a simple handoff to the right side of the line so Oliver could carry the ball in his dominant hand.
Unclear why the staff had limited him to only the right side, Oliver convinced Applewhite he was up for it. The next play, he barreled into the end zone at full speed, running behind his older brother. Although it is unknown whether Oliver will be used at running back in 2017, the head coach has not ruled it out.
“I believe you can use him very much like the Texans used J.J. Watt,” Marcus says of Ed. “I think we could do similar things.”
IF HE WERE allowed to leave in a matter of months, Oliver would be one of the most coveted defensive players in the draft. He has all the qualities to be the No. 1 overall pick.
His body and mind are ready for the NFL, even if the NFL isn’t ready for him. As it stands now, Oliver owns a squat of nearly 650 pounds. If he had to run a 40-yard-dash, he believes he could come close to running it in 4.6 seconds at 290 pounds.
The notion that he would ever sit out his junior season has not crossed his mind. The entire business of the sport, in some ways, still feels so far away. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s still in the infancy of his sophomore season.
Perhaps business will enter his mindset if the dominance continues, and it almost certainly will. “Then maybe you start thinking about insurance and protecting yourself,” he says. “But I haven’t proven anything.”
Although some could view the next couple years as a burden—an obstacle standing in the way of a long, lucrative professional career—Oliver views it differently. He has almost two more full seasons, at least, to make believers of the football world. To convince it that he is the best player on earth. To prove to himself, his biggest and most vocal critic, what he is capable of.
“I’m still not doing enough,” he says. “I have to go harder. It will never be enough.”
He has at least a few more months to play alongside his brother, the reason he’s here to begin with. In the spring, the two matched up against one another for the first time in their football lives. Marcus says the moment felt larger. Ed says his brother was just another player in those few moments, although his tone and voice say otherwise.
Their roles have reversed over the years. Ed is now the teacher rather than the student, showing Marcus how to handle bull rushes, counters and speed the likes he may never see again. Marcus is thankful for all of it—even the most miserable, taxing practice reps.
“I know I’m his brother, but I speak to him as a football player,” Marcus says. “He’s unbelievable. … I want him to do everything.”
While he waits to take his next football step, Oliver will play for Houston. Not just the program, but a city that will be recovering long after he finally departs for the NFL.
During those days away from Houston before the season, as the city was overcome with water, the few hours on the practice field in Austin were the moments Oliver felt like himself.
The field has always been a place of comfort for Oliver. It was a way of staying in motion and out of trouble as a boy. Now, it is his release. It’s a place where names, faces and even his own blood blend together; perhaps the only place Oliver is truly himself.
And for a few hours each Saturday over the next two falls, the city of Houston can find its own release, if only for a short while. It can lose itself in its team and a player who stands proudly for his hometown. He won’t be hard to find.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.
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