By Gene Duffey
Special to the FWAA
The University of Houston’s Ed Oliver grew up wanting to be first. So far, so good. He wasn’t the first born in his family, having to settle for being the third of four boys, but he couldn’t help that.
He wanted to be the first one remembered among the string of outstanding defensive linemen to come out of Westfield High School in Houston. Check. He wanted to be the first five-star recruit to play at the University of Houston. Check. He wanted to become the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy. Check.
“I was the first to do a lot of things,” he said. “I was the first recruit this high to come to Houston. I take pride in being the first sophomore to win the Outland. That’s an amazing accomplishment. I could have done it as a freshman. See, I’m kind of hard on myself.”
Ed Oliver’s value system is different from most. Good is never good enough. The best can still be better.
That is why he wants to be the best interior lineman in college football once again this fall. If he claims the 2018 Outland Trophy presented by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, Oliver will be only the second player to receive the award twice. Nebraska center Dave Rimington achieved the first double Outland Trophy haul in 1981 and 1982.
“I do things differently,” he said. “I have a different mindset. Sometimes I get down on myself. I just want to work out and get better. The more people tell me I’m good, the more I come down on myself. Nobody could be harder on myself than me.
“Even though I might sugar coat it in front of people, it’s always in the back of my head what I did wrong. I could have done better on this play. When I watch film, I (look for) what I could have done better, not how good I am.”
Oliver began receiving extra attention from opposing offensive lines when he started on the varsity as a sophomore in high school. Double teams became a way of life.
He continued to prove himself worthy of the extra attention right away as a freshman in college. Oliver started the opening game of the 2016 season against No. 3 Oklahoma, made seven tackles, including two sacks, and helped the Cougars spring a 33-23 upset.
“The biggest thing that surprised me was how fast it happened,” said A.J. Blum, Houston’s defensive line coach who also coached Oliver in high school. “I knew he was capable.”
There was no need to redshirt Oliver. He began dominating from day one. The double teams returned early in the season. They didn’t bother Oliver, or stop him.
“If you keep your pad level low, you can beat them,” he said. “What makes it even sweeter is when you make a tackle out of a double team. It’s so much better. If you put one guy on me, that’s not fair. I’m ready to make a play look too easy.”
Blum, the defensive line coach at Houston, previously worked as Westfield’s defensive coordinator. “(Being double teamed) was inevitable for Ed,” Blum said of Oliver’s days in high school. “It’s just part of playing inside.”
Westfield played a 4-3 defense and the offense focused on Oliver no matter where he lined up. By his senior year he was ranked the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country and the No. 2 player in the state of Texas.
The double teams followed him to college. “The bodies just get bigger,” he said.
He declared after his sophomore season at Houston, after winning the Outland Trophy, that he would be leaving college following his junior year to play in the NFL. The Cougars were grateful that the NFL doesn’t allow any “one and dones.”
“They’ll probably one-on-one block me in the NFL, because they’re professionals, mano-on-mano,” Oliver said with a smile. The prospect excited him.
Oliver’s exploits in high school received national attention. But he didn’t get carried away with all the attention in recruiting. He took only two official visits, to Houston and Oklahoma.
Naturally, Texas A&M and Texas wanted him. Baylor, too. So did Alabama and Notre Dame. And LSU and Mississippi.
“If I had gone (to visit) some place like LSU or Ole Miss, I would have been more tempted to go there,” said Oliver. “Once I made my decision, I wanted to be true to myself, so I decided to stay home.”
“Ed’s a different guy,” said Blum. “He didn’t want to do the whole (recruiting) process. He always had a cellphone, but it was broken.”
Oklahoma was the first college to offer Oliver a scholarship. Jerry Montgomery, the Sooners’ defensive line coach who went on to join the Green Bay Packers staff, saw Oliver in the spring of Oliver’s freshman year, before he had played a game of varsity football.
“It was something you couldn’t hide,” Blum said of Oliver’s talent. “He’s like a skilled player in a defensive lineman’s body.”
Oliver knew little of the Oklahoma tradition. Or Houston’s. He didn’t pay attention to college football. He liked to play football, not watch it on television.
Blum first spotted Oliver as a seventh grader, running around the gym, hanging on the basketball rim. Oliver played a little basketball and baseball outside of school, but football was always his game.
His father, Ed Sr., who went on to be a construction worker, had played running back at Northwestern State, a I-AA (now FCS) school in Natchitoches, La. His older brother Marcus also played football and Ed just followed along.
“I started because of my brother and I grew to love it,” he said. “Everybody wants to be like your brother. Marcus and me are almost like twins. I ended up playing with his friends, who were two years older than me. That may be why I’m so good now, playing against guys older than me. I was a big kid.”
Houston held a relative edge in recruiting Ed Oliver. Marcus was already at UH. Marcus played in every game on the offensive line as a true freshman and started seven games at offensive tackle as a sophomore. “You can be a big guy here,” Marcus told Ed.
Marcus was not the same caliber player as his younger brother coming out of Westfield. When Houston offered him a scholarship, it was a big deal. Two years later it made Ed’s decision easy.
“Probably the biggest factor was Marcus being here,” Oliver said of choosing Houston. “I trusted my brother. I figured I’d get my two years in here (while Marcus was still on the team), and if I don’t like it, leave. But I like it here.”
Ed and Marcus roomed together for one year in college. But Ed didn’t like the idea of going one-on-one against his older brother in practice. They had faced each other only once in practice in high school.
Marcus moved to guard for his junior year at Houston, which could have lined him up against Ed in practice.
“Marcus is pretty good,” said Ed. “I only beat him a couple of times. He beat me a handful of times. That’s a lot to say right there. He’s got really fast feet. I went to finesse him. He’s (our) most athletic guard.”
Tom Herman, the offensive coordinator of Ohio State’s 2014 national champions, parlayed that into becoming coach at Houston for the 2015 season. He led the Cougars to a 13-1 record in his first season, even without Ed Oliver, climaxed by beating Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl.
Herman continued his success in the offseason by signing Oliver. Houston had built its football reputation by recruiting players that Texas, A&M and other Big 12 schools didn’t want. Texas tried to recruit quarterback Andre Ware, who won the 1989 Heisman Trophy at Houston, as a defensive back. Getting Ed Oliver was a big deal.
“When I got here coach Herman told me, ‘We’re going to put you and your brother together,’ ” Ed Oliver said of the practice schedule. “I said I would not do that. That’s my brother. I don’t want to go against my brother for your pleasure or the coaches’ pleasure. I felt like that was messed up. We did end up going against each other some. And I won. I don’t feel as strongly about it now, but it really upset me then.”
After a 9-4 record in Oliver’s freshman year, Herman bolted for Texas. Oliver felt a little betrayed. But the offer was too good for Herman to turn down.
“It did bother me, but my Dad talked to me,” said Oliver. “If a guy is making $30 on a job and someone offers him another job for $60, you would be a fool to stay. I understood what he said 100 percent. You can’t fault anyone for trying to better themselves. If I could stay at UH four years and leave after three, people will be mad at me, but they shouldn’t be.”
Houston didn’t hire A.J. Blum in an attempt to sign Ed Oliver. Blum joined Major Applewhite, Herman’s successor, a year after Ed Oliver arrived. The two had built chemistry during their days at Westfield.
“He’s shown me the ropes,” Oliver credited Blum. “Shown me what to do. I wouldn’t say he’s like a brother, or like a father, but like an uncle.”
Playing for Blum as a sophomore, Oliver only got better.
He made 69 tackles in 2017, including 14 ½ sacks, earning defensive player of the year honors in the American Athletic Conference, chosen by the league coaches. Winning the Outland was next in line.
Oklahoma junior offensive tackle Orlando Brown and Notre Dame senior guard Quenton Nelson were other finalists for the award.
“That was surprising, to be honest,” admitted Blum, not expecting a sophomore to win the Outland. “Those were his goals, to be nationally recognized. We have always talked (about him winning the Outland.) That’s the big dog for defensive linemen.”
At 6-2 and 290 pounds, he is not exceptionally large by today’s defensive line standards. What separates him?
“It’s his quickness and ability to react,” said Blum. “He’s like a wrecking ball out there that turns into a pinball. He can bounce off people and keep his feet.”
Oliver knew he might be special when people mistook him for a senior his freshman year of high school. Wearing a beard his sophomore year in college and with a baritone voice, he could easily pass for 25.
His easy going personality belies the intensity he displays on the field. “He’s a goofball,” said Blum, who gives no special treatment to his best player in practice.
Oliver requested to wear No. 94 at Westfield. But the coaches had something else in mind. They knew Oliver was special. They unretired No. 11 and presented it to Oliver.
A former linebacker named Herman Mitchell had worn No. 11 at Westfield. His junior year Mitchell helped Westfield to a 13-1 record and the regional semifinals. He committed to Oklahoma before his senior season. Then, Aug. 23, 2007, the day of a scrimmage, Mitchell was shot and killed at an apartment complex by a one-time friend.
Ed Oliver learned the legend of Herman Mitchell.
“I guess they felt I could fill the shoes,” said Oliver. “It was an honor. It’s ironic that I took a visit to Oklahoma. When they gave me 11, it gave me a purpose bigger than myself. Every day I competed like I wanted to be the best in the nation.”
Wearing No. 11 proved ideal for Oliver because he occasionally lined up as a fullback in Westfield’s goal line offense. He enjoyed that. No need to change jerseys for offense.
Wearing No. 10 at Houston made sense. But he didn’t carry the ball until the final game of his sophomore year. Oliver scored the first touchdown in Houston’s bowl game, a one-yard plunge in a 33-27 loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.
Ed Oliver is kind of a Cougar cowboy. He loves to ride, go-karts, motorcycles, horses. He has three horses on his Dad’s farm in Marksville, La.
Before the 2018 season, Houston created a bobble-head as a promotion for Oliver. This one is rather unique: Ed is riding a horse named Oreo, who in real life was maybe the most stubborn horse that Ed had ever ridden since he was 8 years old. Oliver credits riding Oreo for one of the reasons he is the player he is today.
Oliver has promised not to go through the motions his junior year at Houston, even with the NFL awaiting. He played through five games in 2017 with a nagging knee injury, but still impressed enough to claim the Outland Trophy.
“There’s a lot to be accomplished, so you’ve got to watch me,” he said, speaking more like a guy trying to sell tickets than inflate his ego.
“I want to do everything I did, and be healthy the whole year. I want to show people what they missed last year if I hadn’t gotten hurt. They saw a glimpse of Ed Oliver, a sneak peek. I could go forward pretty fast, but couldn’t move side-to-side. That’s what took away from my game.
“I’m not on cruise control, but I am going to enjoy my time. Once I leave, I can’t come back. I can’t put on that red and white and step on that field. The first couple of months I’ll probably miss it and coach Blum’s voice.”
The Cougars will miss him more.