The next Aaron Donald? Ed Oliver's unconventional path to NFL draft

NFL draft profile: Ed Oliver (1:14)

Ed Oliver is a great interior defender with violent hands and elite first-step quickness. (1:14)

ON AN AFTERNOON in late March, a few weeks ahead of the 2019 NFL draft, 19 football players gather inside the University of Houston's indoor practice facility, a cavernous white warehouse housing a plush turf field. Scores of family members, friends and media members are here. All 32 NFL teams are represented by coaches or scouts. Two teams even have sent their head coaches -- the Tennessee Titans' Mike Vrabel and Bill O'Brien of the Houston Texans.

They're all here to see Ed Oliver.

About an hour earlier, across the street, UH's weight room played host to the familiar -- and creepy -- sight of a group of young men (all black, save two) in their underwear being weighed and measured. When Oliver's name was called, he casually -- so much so that it was conspicuous -- sidestepped the height measurement and slid onto the scale. There were a few looks of confusion and some wry smiles. No one said anything, though, because, well, what's the point? Oliver was measured just weeks prior at the NFL combine; he is not getting any taller. Back on the practice field, the man announcing names looks up from his clipboard and shouts to the assembled scouts and coaches sitting on twin sets of bleachers 40 yards away, "Oliver is running last." He looks back down at his clipboard, shakes his head and shrugs. All the prospects had been told they were running in alphabetical order.

More smiles this time, and a quick flurry of note taking. They're learning what I'll soon find out from Oliver's family members, coaches and teammates: Ed's gonna do Ed.

A few minutes later, Oliver walks over for his 40-yard dash wearing gold-colored cleats. Suddenly, no one is looking at anything else. All the bystander chatter pauses; the other athletes stretching and pacing and trying to exorcise their nervous energy all stop what they're doing. The only sound in the whole place seems to be the mechanical click-whine of DSLR cameras.

Let's avoid any specious claptrap about how Oliver in rapid motion achieves some kind of physical eloquence. The mechanics are brute and simple: His limbs are compact and powerful; he is very flexible in his ankles and knees and hips, which allows his lower half to attain astonishing power angles vis-à-vis the ground; and he has quicks -- abrupt reflexes, barely-there reaction times. If there was any give in the turf, it would pleat up behind him in little waves like cartoon carpet.

He runs 4.73 -- fast for a defensive tackle, but not quite the beyond-spectrum number some expected. He declines to take his second turn. He has satisfied himself.

"I'm not gonna stress myself out about no 40-yard dash. I'm not a running back," he says later.

He doesn't have it in him to pander. Ed's gonna do Ed.

IT'S ANOMALOUS THAT Oliver is at the University of Houston at all. Three years ago, when he committed to play college football in his hometown, he famously became the first five-star recruit to choose a school outside the Power 5 conferences. This decision, the first of a few unconventional choices, was the result of another Ed -- Ed Oliver Sr.

"Oh yeah, he wanted to go to LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame," recalls Ed Sr. "But I said, 'You ain't gonna do that. You're not gonna leave your brother.' We fought about it."

Ed Sr. and I meet in the living room of his sister's bungalow in Marksville, Louisiana, some four hours east of Houston. He lives next door in a small house of his own, his personal share of a roughly 30-acre property. By Ed Sr.'s count, there are about 11 houses in all, belonging to various members of the extended family. Out back, there's an abandoned old car, its surface oxidized to green, camouflage earth tones; a lurking cat Ed Sr. calls "Twin"; a copse beyond that is a large field of unruly grass. In the near distance, a cousin is tilling the ground for a small garden. And of course, there is the barn for the horses that are a well-documented part of Oliver's air of peculiarity. The barn is a simple and rugged DIY structure that houses Sugar ("Your sweetness is my weakness," says Ed Sr.), Caldonia, April and Coffee ("No cream, just sugar"), which is Oliver's horse. Averse to conventions as he is, Oliver typically rides bareback.

The family is large and tightly bound. Besides Ed Sr.'s insistence, it was ultimately Oliver's close bond with Marcus, his older brother who already was on the team at Houston, that finally convinced him to choose the school. The two are very different: Marcus is tranquil, almost diffident in person, while Ed can't seem to do anything without making a splash. When Ed finally decided to follow Marcus to Houston, his mom found out about it on TV.

"I'll tell you, Marcus has kept me going straight," Oliver says. "Because my older brother did the right thing all the time. It was like, if he's gonna do the right thing, it's hard for me not to do the right thing."

I ask Ed Sr. in four different ways why it was important to him for the two boys to stay together, and each time he gives the same answer: "Because they're brothers." That was it -- as if he had never considered that there had to be any additional justification.

He finally gestures at a large framed picture in front of his sister's fireplace; it's of Ed and Marcus kneeling before a game, Marcus' hand on Ed's right shoulder, while Ed carries the U of H flag in his left hand.

"That's my championship right there," he says. "That's my trophy."

For his part, Oliver has no regrets about not going to a bigger school. He thrived at Houston. He was a freshman All-American and as a sophomore the first underclassmen to win the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior defensive lineman. He is the only three time All-American in the school's history.

Last spring, heading into his junior year, Oliver took the unusual (how else?) step of announcing that 2018 would be his last season in college, bypassing the typical star-college-player process of feigning agony over a foregone conclusion. For Oliver, it was a matter of sparing his teammates, coaches and program the endless "will he-won't he" questions about leaving early, a gesture appreciated later by his former head coach Major Applewhite and AJ Blum, who was Oliver's defensive coordinator at Westfield High and later his defensive line coach at Houston.

"I'm not the guy that's gonna hog the media because I'm speculated to go to the NFL," Oliver says. "That's not fair to my team, for somebody to always be asking, 'What do you think Ed's gonna do?'"

Oliver entered his final season at Houston a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, but things did not go as planned. After spending two seasons disrupting every offense he played against, teams started taking countermeasures. After Oliver's sophomore year, Applewhite sent the conference a video compilation of the multiple chop blocks committed against Oliver, particularly a vicious cut block by a fullback in a game against Temple, which helped encourage the NCAA to make the move illegal.

Even still, in a game against Navy last fall, Oliver was cut again while engaged with another blocker. His right leg buckled from the outside and he collapsed, contorted over himself. Though he managed to somehow escape with a bone bruise instead of severe ligament damage, it effectively ended his season. He returned for a half against Memphis five games later. Blum, who says he regards Oliver as a son, said the injury left Oliver feeling thwarted and bored, a fact Oliver acknowledges. It was a tense period. Oliver wanted to play, but to play with that injury was to risk his future as a high draft pick.

Blum reflects back on the end of the season: "You throw in an injury, you throw some pressure in, a lot of people asking questions, and then, you throw in the fact we're talking about a 20-year-old kid."

Through the announcement and the subsequent disappointing season, a pattern obvious to those who know him was becoming clearer publicly: Oliver is decisive and restless and willful. And he has no poker face -- a fact made clear during our interview. A question that interests him makes him sit up; one that bores him will provoke a not quite muted sigh and recline of his entire body, a darting of his eyes sideways, a barely contained urge to escape.

The psychological strain of his injury and questions about whether he would play all seemed to boil over in a nationally televised game against Tulane on Nov. 15. In the second quarter, Applewhite approached Oliver on the sideline when he saw the lineman wearing a black, puffy jacket that team rules designated for active players and tugged a corner of the jacket off Oliver's shoulder. Oliver felt singled out and, as the team entered the locker room, the altercation continued, with an incensed Oliver shouting at Applewhite, shoving a teammate and needing to be restrained from getting in his coach's face. The next morning, the scene was all over the national sports media.

Applewhite was roundly criticized, but the confrontation also led to pundits asking questions about Oliver's behavior, his priorities, his ego.

Everyone involved is eager to pour cold water over the whole thing. Oliver refuses to even talk about it, swatting the question away with a wave of his hand. Applewhite, now an assistant at Alabama, is more forthcoming, but only to lavish his former player with praise and chide the media for taking an interest at all.

"So, a guy got called on not following the rules like the other guys on the sideline, and he took exception to it. Now all the sudden he's a bad guy, he's an uncontrollable guy with an attitude problem?" Applewhite says, voice rising with exasperation. "Give me a break. Why are we talking about this?"

Applewhite can't stand the idea that a TV clip would come to characterize him as an insensitive coach or Oliver as a problem child. And he insists there was never any pressure from the program for Oliver to put his future at risk by playing.

"If my son was in the same position as you, I probably wouldn't let him play," Applewhite says he told Oliver. "You could be a $300,000 player or you could be a $30 million player, so let's be smart about what we do."

"I'M DIFFERENT," Oliver is fond of saying, and he is: his choices, his impact on the field, even his physique. There are questions about his size and what position he should be playing at the next level.

At Houston, he was primarily a nose, but most observers think he's too small for that role and will be shifted to a 3-technique, shading the outside shoulder of guards in the NFL. Blum speculates that Oliver is so athletically talented he could come down from 280 pounds and play linebacker at around 260.

The player Oliver is most often compared to is back-to-back NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, with whom Oliver shares a similar size and measurables (Oliver comes out slightly ahead testing-wise, though Donald was a much more technically advanced pass-rusher in college), as well as the rare ability to dominate a game from the interior of the line of scrimmage. Over Donald's four years at Pitt, he amassed an NCAA record of 66 tackles for loss, 28 of which came in his senior year; in roughly 2½ seasons at Houston, Oliver tallied 54.

But even when he is being compared to a once-in-a-generation talent, Oliver can hardly take the compliment lying down.

"Y'all need to stop comparing us," he says. "If you compared Aaron Donald to me, he wouldn't like it. I don't want to live in his shadow. We're going to be competing for who's better. ... I'm trying to be the best to ever do it."

Now, NFL general managers and coaches have to decide exactly what kind of standout Oliver is. Is he a unicorn, the next Aaron Donald? Or a tweener, too unconventional for down-to-down game-to-game stardom? At one point during the Houston pro day, a cameraman asked, sotto voce to himself, "Is he gonna run the shuttle?" And a colleague, overhearing, answered, "I don't know. I don't think he knows, the way he's been today."

Oliver ran the shuttle -- at an unnatural time of 4.22 seconds, bested on the day only by 5-foot-11, 187-pound cornerback Alex Myres' 4.18. Oliver is just under 6-2 and roughly 280 pounds.

"I go on my own move, and I've always been like that," Oliver says. "I'ma be me regardless."