With the first two months of the college football season behind us, the hype for Heisman Trophy hopefuls and other elite NFL prospects is nearing its peak. Among these candidates are the usual quarterbacks and running backs, but there is one player who is not like the rest. Defensive players don’t usually get the same national recognition as offensive stars, but there is someone who has been on college football analysts’ radars for a long time. His name is Ed Oliver, a defensive tackle at the University of Houston.
Blue-chip prospects often choose to play college football at places like Alabama, Clemson, and other powerhouse schools. Oliver stands out because he didn’t. He’d stand out anyway, since he’s 6’3” and 291 pounds, but three years ago he also became a rare five-star recruit to sign with a non-Power 5 conference school (those not in the SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, or ACC) when he committed to play for the Cougars.
At Westfield High in Spring,Texas, Oliver was already a legend. “I saw him play on highlight video as a high school sophomore,” says Major Applewhite, Houston’s second-year head coach. “I knew that he was capable of doing what he’s doing now in college football. I thought he was a dominant player at the high school level, and I thought he possessed a lot of great talents in terms of his footwork, his pad-level, his quickness, his vision—all things that would translate to the college game.”
Oliver has been a real force at the college level. Since his freshman year, he’s had 190 total tackles, including 53 for loss. He has racked up 13.5 sacks and forced six fumbles, while recovering one. He scored a touchdown last year, and he has sights on one this year, too. “I’ve got to think of [a celebration],” he says. “If I ever get to touch the ball, I’m going to do something crazy.”
Oliver’s mindset is clear when it comes to his expectations for this year. “[I’m] just going to take it one game at a time, and hopefully get a win every game,” he said after starting the year 4–1. (Houston is now 7–1.) But winning games is not all that is attached to his name. He is also in position to be a Heisman finalist and a top five pick in the 2019 draft. He’s not too focused on those two achievements, though.
“I don’t think about it at all,” he says. “I just need to win every game for the rest of the season.”
“I remember as a seventh-grader, he jumped up and hung onto the rim in gym class,” recalls A.J. Blum, Oliver’s high school coach and now his defensive line coach at Houston. “That stuck out to me.”
He played football in junior high, but he really got serious going into high school. “In my eighth-grade summer, going into my ninth-grade year, I was like, Yeah, this is for me,” recalls Oliver.
In high school, he was fierce. A three-year varsity starter, he had 229 tackles, 16 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and an interception. He was ranked the sixth-best player in the nation and third at his position. He earned a spot in the Under Armour All-American Game.
Oliver has a lot of qualities that distinguish him. “His quickness and his pad-level [make him unique],” says Applewhite. “He gets off the ball so quick and he plays at such a low pad-level that it’s tough to get a clean block on him.”
Says Blum, “I’ve always said that he reminds me of John Randall, a Hall of Famer who played for the Vikings.” Like Randall, Oliver is an undersized defensive lineman who wreaks havoc on any offense that he plays against.
Oliver, though, never really modeled his game after a specific player. “I kind of move around from player to player,” he says. “[Right now it’s] Aaron Donald, but I just move around a lot, and watch them, and apply that to my game.”
Despite always being on defense, the players he loved were mostly quarterbacks. “I was a Saints fan, and my brother liked the Cowboys,” says Oliver. “[I liked Drew] Brees, and also [Michael] Vick, because he was exciting to watch.”
His older brother, Marcus, was an offensive lineman at Houston. “I came [to Houston] because my brother was already here,” says Oliver. “That was the main factor in my decision.”
The brothers have a close but competitive relationship. “We were always [trying to one-up each other] because when you have a little brother, you always want to beat him,” says Marcus. “Whether it be playing one-on-one [basketball] in the driveway, or something else, we were always competing.”
“They’re not alike at all,” says Blum, who coached both of the brothers in high school. “They’re totally different with regards to how they act. The one thing they have in common, though, is how invested they are in their family.”
Oliver’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially around the Houston campus. “People recognize me pretty often, and they say, ‘Hey, what up!’ and I say that back to them,” says Oliver. “I’m a friendly guy, so if you come to me and just want to take a picture, that’s fine, or if you just want a conversation, that’s fine too.”
Oliver has made it clear that after the season is over, he will declare for the NFL draft, forgoing his final season of eligibility. It can be an unpaved road for some players, but Oliver already knows some about it.
“A couple of coaches here went to the league,” he says. “I talk to them about how it is up there and the transition, but I’m pretty educated. I don’t know everything, but I know a little.”
Everyone who has watched Oliver knows he has what it takes, but equally importantly, he knows it too. So if you see Houston’s number 10 sprinting at a quarterback, or pushing a running back to the turf, you’re getting a preview of what you will see on Sundays next season.
Top photograph by Travis Tustin/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images