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Ed Oliver is too good to emulate

You wouldn’t teach a player to play his way, and it’s doubtful they could pull it off anyway. The potential #1 draft pick explains his game.

Illustration by Karyim Carreia

NEWPORT, Rhode Island — To explain what makes Houston’s Ed Oliver special, consider a different Clutch City star: Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell.

Bagwell is a Hall of Famer with 449 home runs out of this stance:

Getty Images

Almost nobody else has hit home runs in the majors like that. You wouldn’t coach that stance — it’s his technique, developed on his own, and he made it work to legendary effect.

The same can be said for Oliver, likely a top-five pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

He is unique off the field, with an affinity for horses and bold enough to announce that his entire college career is a “business trip.” In the 18-year history of modern recruiting rankings, he’s the second-highest-rated player to sign with a non-power program. And he did something unheard of when he declared for the NFL Draft almost 14 months early.

But it is not simply that Oliver is probably the best player in college football; it’s how his unique technique maximizes his athletic gifts.

He calls himself a “connoisseur of the game.”

It’s not uncommon to find a top NFL prospect who doesn’t really watch much football on TV. Oliver does watch, and he takes pieces from what he sees, but he still goes his own way.

“Honestly, I don’t pattern my game after anybody,” Oliver said. “I watch a couple guys. I see what they do. I don’t intentionally imitate them, but it winds up me imitating them. It can be anybody. I could be watching an NFL guy and say ‘ooo, look what he did there.’ I might not know the guy’s name, but I imitate him.”

When he was in high school, his coach A.J. Blum — now his defensive line coach with the Cougars — got him to watch another Texan who happens to be a Hall of Fame defensive lineman.

“He’s not a disrespectful person when it comes to watching other guys,” Blum told me. “At the same time, he’s somewhat stubborn because he wants to be the example. He wants to show people that he can do it, and this is how he does it. I know personally when we were at Westfield [High School], I always thought of him as a John Randle type. He’s so explosive and so dynamic and so twitchy.”

Randle — like the (listed) 6’3, 290-pound Oliver — was seen as undersized. Oliver makes up for this with exceptional skill and knowledge.

“Our guys are telling us he kinda knows this, he’s calling out this,” an opposing assistant coach who has gameplanned against Oliver and will do so again in 2018 told me. “He doesn’t get enough credit for his overall knowledge of the game. People think a D tackle is just running hard. No, he’s a smart kid.”

When Oliver’s asked if he could do something outlandish like play safety, he doesn’t shy away.

“You throw me at safety, I’ll probably pick it up,” Oliver said. “I might not be able to cover much, but I’ll know where I’m supposed to be.”

Then you see Oliver’s footwork, and you don’t think it’s as crazy as it sounds.

You know how plays involving Oliver usually end ...

Take this one for instance, during his second quarter as a college player. The then-freshman shoved an Oklahoma lineman to the side and engulfed a running back like it was nothing.

... but what about how they start?

It’s subtle, but look at Oliver’s body compared to his other two fellow defensive linemen. He’s compact and coiled, with his back at an angle and his butt down in his stance, with the goal of unlocking his lower body’s power. He also attributes the unorthodox starting point to his short legs.

“It just allows me to attack faster. It allows me to get out of my stance faster,” Oliver said. “I don’t know how people play with their butt in the air. Like I said, it’s not comfortable to me. It doesn’t allow me to generate enough power, and I feel like I generate way more power with that stance. I don’t know if it’s bad for your body or what, I just know I can generate a lot more power like that, and it keeps me low too.”

Oliver’s stance is, in his own words, “different.”

To be clear, this is not how you’d teach a defensive lineman to line up. Houston’s line coach concedes that.

“I’m a big 80/20 guy — heavy weight on your hands, ass in the air, forward lean,” Blum said. “We started going through the process when he was in high school, where he started getting squatty on it, and it was one of those things — you don’t want to fix something that’s not broken.

“He basically proved to me and proved to himself that this is the stance he could come out of. It was compact, but at the same time extremely explosive. Short legs or not, I think that’s a tribute to his leverage.”

Even though Blum prides himself on fundamentals, he had to think outside the box here. Oliver says if NFL teams want “to make me sorry, then go ahead and fix it.”

“I feel like the more people know who I am, the more people see the stance, they’re gonna start teaching it,” Oliver said. “Watch. Then before long, we’re gonna have Ed Oliver stances, and they’re gonna call it the — what’s a good D line coach? — he’s gonna say it was his even though it’s mine.

“The Oliver Stance. He’s gonna say ‘try this.’ He’s gonna take all the credit for it.”

When Oliver explodes out of that compact stance, the milliseconds before contact are critical.

He’s taken his first step. It’s already lightning quick because his footwork is so good.

Take this game-opening snap, part of the reason Memphis coach Mike Norvell told me that Oliver is “probably one of the toughest players I’ve ever had to gameplan for.”

There is no scheme for that. There is no advanced strategy. That’s one physically gifted young man just flat out whipping someone else.

“A D lineman that stops his feet is a D lineman that gets beat,” Blum said. “And I think with his first step as short as it is — but then the second, third, fourth, and fifth step — they’re so choppy and so powerful. He’s creating knockback. And at the same time, he’s using his hands to lock up and gain leverage and stay in his gap.”

Oliver says he expects to be used in fewer stunts in 2018, with more straight-ahead rushing. Blum calls getting off the ball and knocking offensive linemen back the #1 job of a tackle in Houston’s defense, and letting Oliver just pin his ears back and go means even more chances to do that.

But what about his hands?

Defensive linemen generate their power with their lower bodies, but the hands are equally important. Brandon Jordan, a DL specialist who works with players in Texas and Louisiana, helps train Oliver during the offseason.

“Right now he can use a bull rush in college and dominate,” Jordan said. “But getting ready for the next level, it’s about using his hands more. Reading the keys of the O lineman and not just doing a move just to do it — you’re doing it to react and reacting off it. Making things more of a reaction instead of just guessing.“

They do drills like this one to improve Oliver’s handplay.

Oliver has a pet move when pass rushing, in which he clubs an offensive lineman’s arms out of the way, then rips through his body.

“I can beat any guard in the nation, club/rip just off the ball, just straight up,” Oliver said. “If it comes down to it, I’m gonna club/rip and beat you any time.”

And when Oliver beats an offensive lineman — which he’ll probably do — it’s time to chase the ball down.

This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Talented defensive linemen are notorious for lack of motor, one of the biggest knocks against otherwise elite rushers.

That’s not a problem with Oliver.

He says he’ll hear offensive lineman tell each other that it’s time to resort to holding in order to slow him down.

But Oliver’s quick first steps and adeptness at hand-to-hand warfare are for naught if he doesn’t do the final job: pursuing the play and making the tackle.

“Effort. That’s the one thing that stands out,” the anonymous opposing assistant said. “His effort is amazing. Not only effort but the amount of plays he actually plays. He rarely comes out of the game. To see a defensive lineman give that kind of effort, and the amount of reps he’s getting, is amazing.”

He sticks with plays even after he’s fallen down ...

... or gets blocked out of the play ...

... or has to pursue from far away (watch him near the top hashmarks, tracking Baker Mayfield to the other sideline).

“I’d rather chase somebody than let ‘em sit there and just get hit,” Oliver said. “That’s easy.

“When you face a mobile quarterback, the most thing I hear the O linemen saying is like ‘damn, he’s fast.’ They try to keep up with me and block me, then they’ll let me go, and I’ll go make the tackle.”

Pursuit is not just about being really fast or in great shape. There’s a spatial awareness a player must have, and the fact that Oliver has it in spades is rare for a lineman. Blum says Oliver’s footwork gets him from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, important when closing space at an angle.

“One thing Ed does extremely well is, if he’s working to the left and the play breaks to the left, he puts his foot in the ground, and that left foot, that toe is turning,” Blum said. “It’s turning down the line. That’s a big mistake that a lot of young guys make. When they turn to redirect, they round off their path. And that’s a total correlation to where their toe’s pointed.”

Watch as Oliver immediately heads where the ball will soon be, not to where it is right now.

“Sometimes you get guys that come out of their stance and their eyes may be down,” Blum said. “They may not be able to bow their neck as fast. When you look at him in his stance, he’s eyeballs forward. He’s straight ahead, so he can see multiple angles, which I think helps him.”

All of Oliver’s skills set him up for what could be a transcendent future.

Oliver has consistently lived up to his Texas-sized hype. Pro Football Focus grades him as 2018’s best returning DT, and he could be the #1 pick in a draft loaded with superstar defensive linemen.

He was eighth nationally in total tackles among all defensive linemen in 2017, second among defensive tackles, even though he played with an injured knee for four games and missed most of a fifth.

Oliver’s good at regular defensive line things, but he’s also good at things defensive linemen aren’t supposed to be good at.

You wouldn’t teach someone to play football like Oliver does, but you probably can’t find a player gifted enough to pull it off anyway.