HOUSTON – The deepest imprint – and perhaps the highest compliment – that Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver has left on college football through two seasons can’t be quantified by conventional metrics. His Heisman candidacy, potential No. 1 NFL draft pick projections and scout comparisons to Aaron Donald – perhaps the best non-quarterback in the NFL – can’t truly capture the sheer dominance he’s inflicted on the sport.
Oliver’s rare talent can be summed up by a simple notion typically reserved for the rarest of athletes – he prompted a change in the rulebook.
Oliver earned All-American honors with 5.5 sacks and 16.5 TFL last season, despite missing three quarters of the Temple game and being limited in four others because of an MCL sprain. That came on a block – legal at the time – from Temple fullback Nick Sharga, who got a running start from the outside of the right tackle to dive low at Oliver and have his left shoulder pad crash violently into Oliver’s right knee.
Finally able to go back and watch first half replay from Temple game. Here’s the block by Temple fullback Nick Sharga on Ed Oliver pic.twitter.com/5v8KfULX3c
— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) October 3, 2017
In total, four opponents last season attempted to block Oliver similarly, with a player streaking in for a cut block from a side angle. While not technically illegal at the time, it offended the sensibilities. “I don’t want to cast aspersions for people on doing something dirty,” said Terry McAulay, the former American Athletic Conference coordinator of officials and now a commentator with NBC. “But what we saw should have been illegal.”
Ed Oliver has rarely fit normal paradigms, so it makes sense that the rulebook needed to be adjusted for him. How many 5-stars end up in the American Athletic Conference? How many city kids are country strong? How many nose guards grow up riding horses?
In the 2018 version of the NCAA rulebook – Page 90, Article 6 highlighted in blue below – we have what could be remembered as the Ed Oliver Rule. Houston coach Major Applewhite, concerned for the health of his player, compiled clips of the cut blocks and forwarded them to McAulay at the AAC office. Those clips spread to other officiating coordinators and to the NCAA. (NCAA rules official Rogers Redding says it wasn’t only Oliver who prompted the change, but the chain reaction is clear.)
“They changed the rule,” Oliver told Yahoo Sports recently for the Yahoo Sports College Podcast. “I don’t have any worries about [the blocks]. It’s a dirty play. It’s a play designed to take a player out … I’d never do it to anyone. It’s a cheap shot. I’m glad it’s illegal.”
The rule states that blocks below the waist on defensive linemen can only come in the tackle box “if the force of initial contact is directed from the front.” (Think from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock, which is essentially straight on, so the player can react.) The literal low blows didn’t go unnoticed in the AAC. “I don’t understand that,” said Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery. “I’d never do that. You’re talking about a kid who has a chance to go better his family and his life. I think it’s a chicken crap way of playing.”
With Oliver healthy and protected, coaches in the AAC are trembling at what he could do on his final tour. Memphis coach Mike Norvell says the notion of playing against Oliver is “nauseating.”
Oliver’s decision to pick Houston over LSU, Alabama and Texas in May of 2015 transformed former UH coach Tom Herman’s “H-Town Takeover” mantra from a marketing ploy to a tangible goal. Oliver came to Houston because his brother played offensive line there, and Herman also hired Corby Meekins, his coach at Westfield High School. But Oliver’s decision came rooted in a belief in the city’s talent. How good could Houston be with a fence keeping all the top recruits home? “We’d be Alabama,” Oliver said. “If not better.”
Oliver is fiercely parochial toward his hometown, where he grew up riding horses, hated wearing pants and developed a swagger – think late ’90s at The U – where he’s bold enough to declare for the NFL draft before the start of his junior season. Not one for subtlety, Oliver even managed to do some lobbying on a recent Yahoo Sports College Podcast for the school to retire his No. 10 as part of his legacy.
Oliver refined his raw strength riding horses – he preferred bareback – which account for thighs that double as sequoia trunks attached to his waist. (His favorite was named Oreo – “Loved that dude to death,” he said.) Oliver’s thighs, which enable his 34.5-inch vertical jump and 635-pound back squats, are so oversized that he struggles to buy pants that don’t fit like Spandex.
Oliver purchases pants three sizes bigger than his 40-inch waist in order to pull them over his thighs. That means he essentially needs to fasten his belt with a double knot. “It’s just a big hassle,” he said of wearing pants. “Shorts are more comfortable. You just slide them on, slide them off … Whoever made shorts, I thank you very much.”
There’s an argument that Oliver doesn’t fit in college football, either. His freshman season, he was so dominant that Herman would have to take him off the field in order to allow the Cougars to practice their offense. Oliver led all defensive linemen with eight pass breakups, a total that’s impressive for a safety, and finished second nationally with 23 TFLs. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Norvell said. “Not just because of what he does with the physical traits and tools. But just the heart and passion and relentless pursuit of how he plays every snap.”
Even with the knee issues last year, a gimpy Oliver still leads college football with a career average of 1.56 TFL per game. NFL scouts rarely watch sophomores, as they’re not draft eligible. But they couldn’t help but peek at Oliver, who would be the prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 pick if he fit more traditional defensive tackle size measurements. Oliver was ready to ride off to the league after last season.
“It’s unfair,” Oliver said of the NFL’s early entry rules. “If basketball can do it, why not football? But it is what it is. I’m not going to argue it. I think they say you have to be out of high school for [three] years. There’s no way around it, they had a reason.”
Part of Oliver’s decision to declare for the draft prior to his junior season came from wanting to avoid distraction, as speculation about him leaving would have followed him through the season. Oliver’s stated goals for the season are leading Houston, which went 7-5 last season, to an AAC title and New Year’s Six Bowl game. Along the way, Oliver figured why delay the inevitable. “It really wasn’t a secret,” Oliver said. “I went on a three-year business plan.”
When Oliver arrives in the NFL, he knows exactly who he wants to emulate. Oliver is a massive human at about 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds. (Houston lists him a bit more generously – 6-foot-3 and 292 pounds – but the NFL views him as under 6-foot-1.) But in the space of 350-pound run-stuffing tackles at NBA small forward heights, he’s actually somewhat slight. Same with Donald, who slipped to No. 13 in the NFL draft because he’s “just” 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds. That was despite being so prolific at Pittsburgh that he was a rare defensive player to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting. If they re-drafted the 2014 NFL draft, Donald would be a runaway No. 1 pick.
“To be so small, and my size, and dominate the league, I’m coming for you,” Oliver said of Donald, who he adores and would love to play with. “You’re good. I’d love to work with that man and see what he does. We’re not the same person but similar. Short, quick, twitchy.”
Donald has developed as more of a dominating pass rusher with an average of 10 sacks over the past three NFL seasons. Oliver has made his reputation against the run, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by, well, Oliver. “Nobody plays the run better than me,” he said.
A player of Oliver’s modest stature shouldn’t dominate the trenches like he has in college. NFL franchises will have worries about how he handles double teams – the “straight mass” of NFL life as one scout described it – a staple obstacle for interior linemen at the next level. A player that size would likely require an NFL franchise to break their prototypes to select him. It wouldn’t be the first rule changed to accommodate Oliver.
To listen to the Yahoo Sports College Podcast, visit Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play. (Interview segment with Houston’s Ed Oliver begins at the 37:20 mark.)
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