Humble, stubborn and relentless, Ed Oliver patiently waits for his NFL opportunity
Oliver's star has already been born, but 2018 is when it will truly be recognized
HOUSTON -- Ed Oliver Jr. can tell you about being full of crap.
The Houston junior, arguably the nation's best defensive lineman, was raised around it. That's what happens when you break horses before they break you. That's what happens when you build an 18-stall horse barn from scratch one summer to help a neighbor. That's what you do when football is merely the latest manifestation of a higher expectation.
Get in orbit around Ed Oliver Jr. and you begin to realize that expectation goes beyond becoming a sophomore All-American or being the youngest Outland Trophy winner in history … or having become a definite Heisman Trophy contender in 2018 as a difference-making defensive tackle.
"Football is nothing," said the kid whose family calls him "EJ" for short. "I've learned some lessons in my life."
But first, that crap.
Cougars coach Major Applewhite says shaking father Ed Oliver Sr.'s hand is like grabbing hold of "900 blisters."
"It's like shaking somebody's hand with sandpaper," Applewhite added. "When you see him, it's cowboy boots, starched jeans, starched shirt, leather collar. Hat on.
"This guy has had a lot of ropes and a lot of shit in his hand. He's dug a lot of ditches. He almost has a little bit of that Earl Campbell."
Ed Sr., the construction-working son of a brick layer, is old school, tough as the leather he wears. The extended Oliver family is from Louisiana. They moved to Houston for the quality of education and on-field competition.
With cowboys come horses and with horses comes, well, you know.
"The way I was brought up, you clean your own [horse] stalls," Ed Jr. said. "I don't want anybody cleaning my stalls. We had three horses at one time. Sometimes, my dad would say, 'You clean them all by yourself.' Me and my brother, he would shovel and I'd take the wheelbarrow. Taking the wheelbarrow is the hard part.
"It's easy to shovel."
If it's easy to shovel, how hard can it be becoming the first sophomore to win the Outland? Or having one of the great two-year runs as a defensive lineman in the recent history of the game?
Alcohol? Guns? Women? No, I'm more worried about Ed falling off a frickin' four-wheeler."Major Applewhite
Let's just say the 20-year-old has been taught the right way. As children, he and his brother, Marcus, helped dad build an 18-stall barn from scratch for a neighbor because their dad said so.
Once, Ed Jr. lost a bridle.
"My daddy made me clean up the whole barn … because I was irresponsible," Ed Jr. said. "[I picked up] trash, back in the weekends, beer cans, basically just to teach me a lesson."
The primary reason Ed Jr. came to Houston was his dad mandated it. The brothers played together for two seasons because they were family.
"You can sit and think all you want to think," Ed Sr. told his son. "… You're about to go play with your brother."
Marcus, an offensive lineman, is currently training for the draft.
Basically, Ed Jr. has met every expectation as a son, citizen, athlete and prospect. In these uncertain times, representing a hurricane-ravaged city, that means something.
"Alcohol? Guns? Women? No, I'm more worried about Ed falling off a frickin' four-wheeler," Applewhite said. "I'm more worried about a horse hitting him, kicking him."
And you don't doubt it. Ed Jr. carries his 6-foot-3, 280-pound frame confidently but certainly not arrogantly. Forget fans, coaches or expectations. There is a legacy to uphold.
Ed Sr. played tailback at Northwestern State back in Natchitoches, Louisiana, with the likes of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, Super Bowl champion Gary Reasons and three-time Pro Bowler Mark Duper.
Ed Jr.'s great grandfather, Wilbert Oliver, was the subject of a federal lawsuit that effectively broke the color line in funeral homes. An uncle, Carroll Oliver, owned a chain of McDonald's in Houston. Carroll was described as a "beloved" member of the community when he was shot and killed in January 2016. No one has been arrested for the crime. Another uncle, Peter Oliver, is a captain with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
They're all watching.
"Be humble; humble yourself," Ed Sr. preached to his son. "When they're clipping you and they're holding you, don't go over in the refs' face and make a scene. Tell the ref, 'Hey, they're holding me.'"
We're talking about a kid who may have learned his elusiveness from riding Oreo, a precocious Tennessee Walker, as a child.
"Oreo is me in the horse version," Ed Jr. said. "He's kind of stubborn. Every time you ride Oreo, it's a little bit of a fight. … Oreo was a horse, if he didn't want to do something, he'd rare up. I didn't know what was wrong with that fool. He'd go straight up in the air and start walking, like a human being. I guess that was his way of saying, 'No.'"
Ed Sr. added, "That's why EJ can change directions so well. Oreo never threw him. All the twists and turns, EJ would counter him. It was like a boxer."
That you haven't heard more from Ed Jr. is a reflection of playing below college football's Mendoza Line. Oliver is believed to be the first five-star prospect to sign with a Group of Five program out of high school.
To zone block me is stupid. Ed Oliver Jr.
That he is not in the SEC or Big Ten collapsing offensive lines should take nothing away from his accomplishments. Watch him play. He has not disappointed with 139 tackles and 10.5 sacks in 25 career games.
Houston's sports information department is in the process of determining whether Oliver's 39.5 tackles for loss are the most ever for a player in his first two seasons out of high school. That total includes Oliver being limited last year for four games with a knee injury suffered in Week 3 against Temple.
"It's a certainty. He is gone [for the NFL] after this year," Applewhite said. "Being that there is even more pressure on him as a junior coming out, he'll embrace that even more."
Up to now, football has been almost … easy for Oliver. In 2016, the Cougars won nine games, beating Oklahoma in the season opener following a 2015 Peach Bowl campaign that catapulted Tom Herman to Texas.
The Cougars dropped to 7-5 in 2017, but Oliver's motor never slowed. He calls himself a run stopper first. The NFL could call his name among the top five in the 2019 draft.
"I feel like every time I pass rush it should be a sack, at least a pressure. It's controlled freedom," Oliver said.
"Zone blocking is horrible when you're playing me because I'm faster than offensive linemen. To zone block me is stupid."
Pro Football Focus rated Oliver as the No. 3 college defensive lineman overall in 2017, No. 1 against the run. He missed two tackles all season while playing 752 snaps.
Considering Oliver has already won the second-most coveted college football trophy before turning the legal drinking age, a Heisman run isn't out of the question.
"Some way you have to score and be productive at your position," Oliver said. "If I score a couple of times -- four or five times -- I'll be there. I may not win it, but I'll be there."
Oliver bucked tradition when he came from Houston's Westfield High to become the centerpiece of Herman's first recruiting class. There was a certain comfort. Herman sold the whole "H-Town Takeover" thing. Ed Jr. stayed close to his family.
"It's not uncommon to see in that poor part of town someone ride down to Chevron and get a pack of cigarettes," Applewhite said. "You see this person on a horse and literally a quarter mile away is one of the largest interstates in the country.
"I just think Ed has grown up around responsibility."
Father and son disagree on how they view Herman's departure.
"I think he should have told me," Ed Jr. said. "He told me, 'There is no way I'm going to leave before you graduate.' You telling me you're not going to leave until you see us out? You didn't see us out."
Ed Sr. sounded like a cowboy with sandpaper hands.
"If I'm working for a company and they're giving me $30 an hour," he said, "and you've got another company come in and offer me $60 an hour, it's nothing personal. It's business. You want to sit here and whine like little babies? You go back on that field and do what you do."
If not, well, you might be full of crap.
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