Not yet ready to daydream about the NFL, Ed Oliver focuses on wreaking havoc for Houston

HOUSTON -- If any of it has gone to Ed Oliver's head, it hasn't shown.

All the praise, adulation, honor and attention dissolve into frustration when Houston's junior defensive tackle -- named the 2018 CBS Sports Preseason Player of the Year on Wednesday -- considers how he got to this place in college football history: fighting through double- and triple-teams. Chop blocks still irk him.

Consider it a physical tax to be paid by what a large swath of college football observers believe is the best player in the nation.

"Sometimes they want to hurt you," said Oliver, also a unanimous first-team selection on the 2018 CBS Sports Preseason All-America team. "Sometimes they just want to block you. You just take what they give you and try to play faster than the offense."

Life is happening faster than anything else for the man-child who is quickly headed toward college football immortality. In two short years, Oliver has already planted the seed: He may be one of the defensive linemen in the history of the game.

Twenty-five games into his career, Oliver has 39 ½ tackles for loss. That's the most ever for an interior lineman through his sophomore season, according to Houston sports information.

Last year, Oliver at age 20 became the first sophomore and youngest player to win the Outland Trophy, considered the second-most prestigious college award to the Heisman.

"When he played Arizona, I watched him flush the quarterback, I watched him strip the ball, I watched him separate the quarterback's shoulder," former Rice coach David Bailiff said.  "The next week against us, I watched him flush the quarterback, I watched him strip the ball, I watched him separate the quarterback's shoulder.

"We couldn't block him. He is the closest thing to a tornado that I've seen."

Oliver has done nothing to diminish his status as the first five-star recruit to go to a Group of Five school. It's hard to find an interior defensive lineman who was this hyped going into his third -- and final -- season.

Oliver made that certain in March when he declared 2018 would be his final year in college.

"I needed to get that out of the way so I didn't have to answer questions time and time again," he said.

The questions now center around how great Oliver can be in one final glorious season. Various draft boards have him as the No. 1 player in the 2019 draft. CBS Sports isn't the only outlet to rate him the No. 1 college player in the country.

Further questions: What exactly does Oliver still have to prove in college, and how does he not think about the NFL?

"I got 12 games [left]," Oliver said. "It leaves little time to think about that."

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Ed Oliver has dominated every type of competition he's faced in college. Getty Images

Oliver is one of those college rarities who seems like he could have played in the NFL as a true freshman – or even earlier. Think Herschel Walker or Adrian Peterson on the defensive line.

It seems that he's here in Houston's Third Ward running around the Cougars' new indoor facility only because NFL eligibility rules say so. It's not a burden. Oliver will definitely not be one of those guys who skips a bowl to preserve his body.

"Don't leave any money on the table," he said. "Like I said, after this year I'm going to be gone. I'll never play in another bowl game. I might never get to play in a Super Bowl. I'm going to play for my [conference championship] ring."

There have been only three Heisman Trophy finalists coming from the defensive line: Steve Emtman, Washington (1991); Warren Sapp, Miami (1994); Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2009). Since 1990, only Emtman and Suh finished in the top five of Heisman voting among D-linemen.

The two most recent comparisons to Oliver seem to be Suh (fourth in Heisman voting in 2009) and LSU's Glenn Dorsey (ninth in 2007). Those playmakers went No. 5 (Dorsey) and No. 2 overall (Suh) in their respective NFL drafts.

Suh was at Nebraska for five years. Dorsey became a two-time All-American at age 22, playing four seasons with the Tigers. Oliver ripped through his second college football season at age 19. He won't turn 21 until December.

"To say he's the most highly touted lineman going into his junior year wouldn't be much of a stretch," said Steve Richardson, the Football Writers Association of America executive director who helps administrate the Outland.

It's clear that none of this affects Oliver. There is a child very near the surface in that 6-foot-3, 290-pound body.

"My father called me the other day to tell me he was proud of me," Oliver said. "It almost made me cry."

It's probably going to take something special for Oliver even to get to New York as a Heisman finalist. First, Heisman voters (as a group) generally aren't savvy enough to measure a defender's worth.

Michigan's Charles Woodson remains the only defensive player ever to win the Heisman (1997). That year, Woodson added to his resume by returning punts and taking snaps on offense.

"How do you measure taking on blockers, disrupting blockers?" asked Heisman.com historian Chris Huston. "That's probably going to require some creative [stuff], if they create some sort of metrics for offense and defense that is reliable for voters."

Oliver does have one career carry for a touchdown in last year's Hawaii Bowl.

"Put some plays in for him," Huston said. "Get him some pub. Look at Charles Woodson. He had just enough interesting stuff on the other side. He was a legitimate cog in that offense. Ed Oliver could also get 20 sacks."

"That's so far-fetched," Oliver said of a mere invite of New York. "Honestly, I don't care. [Heisman finalists] touch the ball all the time. For me to fixate my junior year on [that], what are we talking about here?

"The Heisman Trophy is going to come and go. I guarantee you the conference championship banner is going to be here forever."

If it ever arrives.

For all his accomplishments, Oliver actually hasn't been part of a championship team. In his first game as an 18-year-old freshman in 2016, he had two sacks, two pressures and five tackles in only 45 snaps during an upset of Oklahoma.

Last year, Oliver was the No. 1 rated run defender as an interior lineman, No. 3 overall at that position, according to Pro Football Focus.

"All the preseason stuff is obviously preseason stuff," Houston coach Major Applewhite said. "But it's an award for what he did last year. It has nothing to do with what he's going to do this year."

Look at the frame. Look at the versatility. While Oliver is listed as a defensive tackle, Applewhite plays him all across the line.

"He runs like a free safety," Bailiff said. "If he was on my draft board, I would take that kid in the first round. I'd have no reservation telling you that."

Playing one of the most coveted positions in football -- quality D-linemen are a rarity -- Oliver also has the personality to be the face of some lucky franchise.

Growing up in rural Louisiana, his family settled in north Houston where it's not a rarity to ride a horse to the convenience store.

"[LSU] is still my dream school," Oliver admitted. "If I could live two separate lives, one would be here and one would be LSU."

That sort of talk drives Applewhite crazy. It suggests his prodigy isn't all the way in, his mind is elsewhere.

This city loves its athletic heroes. Jose Altuve (Astros) and J.J. Watt (Texans) became that pitching in after Hurricane Harvey.

"He is the same Ed that he's always been," Applewhite conceded.

Which brings us to the ingenuity opponents have tried to slow down Oliver.

"Tempo, screens behind the line of scrimmage, perimeter runs, perimeter passes, double teams, trap blocks, single blocks," Applewhite recounted.

But in 833 snaps last year, Oliver was called for exactly six penalties. He missed two tackles in 12 games.

None of it has gone to his head where getting to tomorrow is more of a challenge than any chop block.

"I'm mentally drained just focusing on that," Oliver said. "I don't have time to daydream."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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