HOUSTON -- Like most five-star recruits, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver was determined to start as a true freshman. So when the first day of preseason training camp arrived and Oliver lined up with the second-team defense, he got mad. He felt disrespected. It made him want to "smash people every day."
So he did.
"The first team session that we put on pads, I broke through the line and tried to smash [Houston freshman running back] Mulbah Car," Oliver recalled. "I made him fumble and everything. I tried to
"'Y'all gonna see me. Get me away from these twos.'"
It took just three days for Oliver to get moved up to the first-team defense and he never looked back. Houston's opponents have been victimized by his frustration ever since. His latest prey: Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson and Louisville, who were dominated by Houston 36-10 in Week 12, in large part because of a suffocating defensive effort led by Oliver.
His dominance -- he's second nationally in tackles for loss (19.5), leads all defensive linemen in pass breakups (nine) and is third at the position in total tackles
"This guy is an alien, beast, whatever you want to call him," Houston senior linebacker Steven Taylor said. "He’s not from this world.”
His performance in Houston's win over Louisville (two sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two pass breakups) against what was then one of the top teams in the country and the nation's best player raises the question: Is it time to start recognizing Oliver as a Heisman Trophy contender?
Jackson's lead on the rest of the pack might be insurmountable, but closer inspection of Oliver's numbers suggests it's logical to give him some consideration for a spot on the ballot.
Some of his best performances have come against Houston's toughest opponents. Both of his multiple-sack games this year came against Louisville and Oklahoma, where he racked up two apiece (both teams were ranked in the top five at the time Houston played them).
He's consistent – He has recorded at least a half tackle for loss in 10 of Houston's 11 games.
His numbers through 11 games compare favorably with those of former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in his senior season in 2009, when he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Oliver has more solo tackles (43) than Suh did through 11 games (35), more tackles for loss (19.5 to 15), more forced fumbles (three to one), and is just short of Suh in total tackles (61 to Suh's 65), sacks (five to Suh's 6.5) and pass breakups (nine to Suh's 10) through 11 games.
And it's worth noting Suh played in a four-man front with Jared Crick next to him. Nose tackles in a three-man front are usually relied upon to eat up blockers to allow the edge rushers and linebackers to make plays.
"Normally, working out of a 3-4 defense, the nose doesn't make many plays," Houston defensive end Cameron Malveaux said. "But somehow, Ed does it. He's fast, he can get off blocks like that. ... He's very explosive."
Said coach Tom Herman: "Ed's a freak of nature when it comes to explosiveness and getting off the football."
Oliver does it in a compact frame (generously listed at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds) for a defensive tackle. His drive to succeed comes in part from critics who thought Oliver, a recruit who had offers from most power programs in the country including Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma, took the easy route by choosing a school in the American Athletic Conference that doesn't play Power 5 conference teams weekly.
He hears the whispers of "he wouldn't be doing this in the SEC."
"That's why every big game is a big game for me," Oliver said. "I make sure to show out in those games. Not saying that I don't [in others], but you have a little chip on your shoulder because people are saying you can't do the same thing vs. those [Power 5] teams."
And unlike some true freshmen who seem to hit a wall late in the season grind of a major college football season takes its toll, he seems to be getting better each week.
"He's very prideful," defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. "The special, elite guys, they have that in their DNA. ... When he gets in between the lines, he looks around and says, 'People expect me to do big things.' He takes that to heart."
Orlando is effusive in praise of Oliver's practice habits and his ability not to allow a bad play to affect him on the next one. Oliver also has struck the proper balance of taking his craft seriously while also having fun, as evidenced by a sack dance he performed vs. Louisville, or how often he smiles when he speaks. He also straddles the line between confidence and cockiness, speaking of his dominance matter-of-factly but in a way that doesn't seem the least bit condescending.
"After the Oklahoma game, I was mad at myself," Oliver said. "I felt like I wasn't dominant enough. ... I remember every bad play of that game. I was on the ground way more than I've ever been in my life."
In words and in practice, Oliver is driven to be the best. Even as a recruit, he said he wanted to leave an indelible mark on college football. It’s easy to say but it's much harder to do. So far, Oliver is well on his way to walking the walk.
"I knew this was going to happen," Oliver said. "Same thing like high school. When I had my first offer before I ever played a down of varsity ... 'Is he going to live up to it?' I like to let people set goals for me then I like to break them."