Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Ed Oliver

by Derrik Klassen

Ed Oliver is a paradox: he is everything he was proclaimed to be as a high school prospect, yet feels like a player whose potential went untapped in college.

Coming out of Westfield High School in Houston, Texas, Oliver ranked as 247Sports' No. 6 overall player and the third-highest ranked defensive lineman behind Michigan's Rashan Gary and Clemson's Dexter Lawrence. Oliver had offers from Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and other top Power-5 schools, but shocked the recruiting world by choosing to stay local and play at the University of Houston, a non-Power-5 team in the American Athletic Conference.

Though his decision to stay in Houston made sense on a personal level, things did not quite work out from a football perspective. The lack of direction and front-seven talent in Houston's defense during Oliver's final two seasons with the Cougars resulted in Oliver being miscast as a nose tackle to maximize the rest of the roster. At 6-foot-2 and 287 pounds, Oliver was playing a similar position to that of Damon Harrison of the Detroit Lions, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 353 pounds. To say Oliver was playing out of position is an understatement.

Oliver was regularly double-, triple-, and even quadruple-teamed by opposing offenses in order to stop him from getting to the quarterback. He was Houston's most threatening defensive lineman by a mile, and the rest of the American treated him as such.

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Oliver is directly over the center in this clip, where he shoves a triple-team into the quarterback's lap. Plays such as this were common throughout Oliver's career at Houston. With Oliver being leaps and bounds better than his teammates, as well as Houston's tendency to only rush three players, offenses were willing to put all their resources up front into shutting down Oliver.

Detractors of Oliver have cited his mediocre 13.5 career sacks as evidence of him being little more than a raw athlete who is incapable of consistently making plays, but considering the situations he was often put in, bountiful production was an unreasonable expectation, even for a former five-star recruit.

In the rare event Oliver got to go one-on-one on a pass-rushing rep, he made good on his opportunities. Oliver is best known for his explosive first step, which we will highlight later on, but he sports an underappreciated arsenal of pass-rush moves and savvy as well. He is a heads-up pass-rusher who knows how to maneuver in space and set up opposing blockers to fail.

Take this sack from Oliver's sophomore season for example. Oliver, again over the center, gets a one-on-one situation as Houston rushes five defenders into Memphis' five blockers.

via Gfycat

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As Oliver flies off the ball and quickly gets out of his stance, he initially paths through the center's left shoulder, but realizes he does not have the room to bend around that side because of how close the left guard is. However, in keeping his eyes up throughout his pass rush, Oliver knows that the quarterback is still firmly at the top of his drop and that the only place for him to move is to the opposite side of the center. Oliver then stops in his tracks and executes a spin move around the center, all while maintaining control of his position and using his right arm to deflect the center from countering his move. The swift swim move ran Oliver right into Memphis' quarterback, who was trying to slide up in an attempt to escape the pocket, bringing him down for a drive-killing sack.

Oliver makes a similar play here versus Navy.

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Navy's quarterback takes a deep drop from under center. In an effort to match the depth of the drop, Oliver (lined up in the A-gap between the center and right guard) attacks through the right guard's outside shoulder and pushes through to the quarterback's deep position in the pocket. Notice that Oliver once again has his eyes up during the play, ready to strike when the quarterback moves. When the quarterback does decide to move up, Oliver wastes no time in shedding the blocker and redirecting back inside to find the quarterback for a sack.

Oliver's awareness through his approach, coupled with his suddenness and array of pass-rush moves, sets him up him to make plays like this with ease. If Oliver had been given more of these opportunities, he would have been more productive and better credited for being a smart pass-rusher.

Though Oliver was typically barred from production in the pass game, he always managed to put up numbers versus the run. He posted 31 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at Houston, good for 13 more than any of his teammates. Similar to how he operates as a pass-rusher, Oliver's disruptive run game presence is founded on a blend of a devastating first step and solid technique.

Let's run through a few clips of Oliver winning reps with his first step.

Before seeing the full clip of this play, look at this screenshot and guess what comes next. This screenshot is taken right after the snap, and Oliver (over center) already has the leverage advantage and his hands inside the center's chest, while the center has not yet clasped onto Oliver. If your intuition has not failed you, you can predict the destruction that follows.

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Oliver blows the center 2 yards off the ball almost instantly. He follows through that initial push and stuffs the running back's preferred lane by working through the struggling center. Arizona's left guard tries to help the center out, but by the time he gets there, Oliver has already won the snap and forced a fourth down.

via Gfycat

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Here is Oliver (over center) making a similar play to the one before. He shoots off the snap at an angle toward the direction of the hand-off and does not allow the center to get a good grip of him. With the angle advantage, Oliver can them push through the line of scrimmage and "sit" in the gap to force the cutback. Forcing the tight cutback is a good play in itself, but Oliver even tosses the center aside to work back to the ball carrier and assist with the tackle.

via Gfycat

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Just for good measure, this clip features Oliver (between left guard and left tackle) casually splitting a double-team with his first step to hit the runner in the backfield. This is the type of play with which All-Pros such as Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, and Gerald McCoy earned their reputations.

Oliver is not solely reliant on his first step. Sure, it serves to unlock the rest of his skill set in many cases, but he has the tools to generate good plays in the off chance he does not fly off the ball well.

One key for defensive linemen in approaching run defense is knowing how to play with their hands above their eyes. That means that when they engage with the offensive line, they want to get their hands inside the blocker's chest and shoot upward through the shoulder pads. This serves to get the offensive lineman off balance, generate push, and create a window for the defensive lineman to disengage to make a play. Oliver is excellent at doing this.

via Gfycat

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Here is one example versus Tulsa with Oliver lined up over the center. Oliver gets decent movement off the snap, but does not stop there. As soon as the center tries to stabilize himself, Oliver shoots his hands upward and through the center's chest, forcing him to take a step back with his left foot and give Oliver the window to slide across to stop the runner at the line of scrimmage.

via Gfycat

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This is a rare clip of Oliver playing over the left tackle, something he was not allowed to do for most of the season. Oliver's first step does not earn him an advantage on this play, but he makes up for it with wonderful hand usage. Similar to the last clip, Oliver gets under the blocker, gets his hands into the blocker's chest, and shoots upwards and through the shoulder pads to force the blocker to lose balance. Once the blocker's head is cocked back, his balance is lost and Oliver has a chance to win the rep. Oliver takes the opportunity to strongarm the blocker inside to plug the inside gap, while staying in position to fire outside if the runner decides to bounce. The credit for the tackle does not go to Oliver, but his efforts made the play a win for the defense.

Contrary to the past few examples of Oliver's play, he is often knocked for being an abusable run defender. As a sub-300-pounder, he is seen as being too light for the position and could be exploited by stronger offensive lineman in the NFL.

The concern is valid, to some degree. Oliver is not the type of run defender who will stand put versus a double-team and eat up space. It is also true that he plays where he can be bullied off his spot if he does not win with his first step. However, the same is often true of disruptors such as Oliver. Their play-style and lighter frames are susceptible to being occasionally bullied if something goes wrong, but the point is that the rest of their skill set is good enough to offset that fault.

In the NFL, Oliver will not be put in the same physically demanding positions he was at Houston. At Houston, he was often playing zero-tech -- a role designed for larger, squattier defensive lineman. It is safe to assume Oliver will primarily be a 3-technique in the NFL, just like the aforementioned Donald, Atkins, and McCoy. The 3-tech position is more conducive to leaner, more explosive players such as Oliver.

Because the NFL loves to make the same mistakes over and over again, Oliver will probably fall in the draft for being "too small for the position." For almost every team that passes on him, doing so will be a massive mistake. Oliver's first step and NFL-ready savvy will make him a Sheldon Richardson-type impact right away, with the potential to develop into an All-Pro. Though Oliver will certainly get pushed down in this draft class, his level of talent is worth the first overall pick.


4 comments, Last at 28 Mar 2019, 10:04am

2 Re: Futures: Ed Oliver

I noticed him when I was watching footage of the quarterbacks in the draft last year. He looked terrifying against Oklahoma (Mayfield still did ok in a loss). I didn't notice him as much against Lamar Jackson and Louisville, but it seemed to me that Houston was playing with 14 guys on defense as they blew out the Cardinals. Surprised he only had 13.5 sacks in his college career, but I imagine if there were an accurate accounting of pressures he would be high up on that.

3 Re: Futures: Ed Oliver

It's easy to say "NFL decision makers are going to be stupid and allow Oliver to fall" because, well, they've earned their reputation. But Oliver is so talented, and interior pass rusher is such a valuable position in the NFL today, that it's hard to believe he actually will fall out of the Top 10 - I think a lot of teams with mid-1st round picks are trying to will that scenario into existence.

4 Re: Futures: Ed Oliver

I do enjoy that the first clip -- Oliver shoving the triple team into the quarterback's lap, as it were -- is from a road game against Texas Tech of the Big XII, which, if nothing else, has been able the past few years to pass protect and throw. As noted, he also had games against other Power 5 opponents, all of which took him VERY seriously. When you make Oklahoma worry on offense, that says something.

I do wonder how the end of his career -- obvious friction with Applewhite and issues about how he was being used -- will affect his draft status, and how much of that was mitigated by Houston moving to get rid of Applewhite ASAP after the embarrassing loss to Army.

SEC schedules in November are an insult to the game.