High school football players in Texas have plenty of options from which to choose. The state counts 12 FBS programs spread across five conferences. Two-star talent may wind up at Sun Belt (Texas State) or Conference USA programs (North Texas, UTSA, UTEP, Rice) within Texas’s borders. Blue-chippers often find themselves at the center of intense battles between not only in-state heavyweights Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and TCU but also other Power Five programs across the country.
This dynamic only made it seem more strange when Ed Oliver, the No. 4 defensive tackle and No. 61 overall player in the class of 2016, according to Rivals.com, issued a verbal commitment to Houston in the spring. The list of programs that offered Oliver scholarships includes College Football Playoff contenders from the Pac-12, SEC and Big 12. But Oliver spurned the opportunity to play for an established winner in a big-time league in favor of an American Athletic Conference denizen with a mediocre recent on-field track record that has not signed a four-star recruit since 2012.
Why did Oliver pick the Cougars? For starters, he attends Westfield High in Houston, which is located less than a half hour away from TDECU Stadium. Oliver’s brother, Marcus, a two-star prospect from the class of 2014, is a sophomore offensive lineman for the Cougars. Houston also hired Corby Meekins, the former head coach at Westfield, as its tight ends and fullbacks coach in early January.
His decision is a monumental victory for Houston in two ways. More directly, Oliver is a remarkable talent who will keep AAC offensive coordinators up at night. But he also breathed life into the Cougars’ recruiting efforts under new coach Tom Herman, the former offensive coordinator at Ohio State.
That’s not to say Houston wasn’t making progress before Oliver’s pledge. After being hired by the Cougars in December—while the Buckeyes marched to the inaugural playoff national championship game with wins over Wisconsin and Alabama—Herman spent time assembling a coaching staff and formulating a recruiting blueprint for his next job. The recruiting dead period—during which coaches are prohibited from meeting with prospects face-to-face—ended less than a week after Ohio State’s 22-point win over Oregon in title game, and Herman immediatley set about shoring up the Cougars’ 2015 class.
In the weeks before National Signing Day on February 4, Houston earned commitments from Tyreik Gray, a highly regarded running back from Houston Lamar High; Kameron Eloph, a three-star offensive guard with reported scholarship offers from TCU, Louisville and Georgia Tech; and Joshua Jones, a heralded offensive tackle who flipped from Oklahoma State. Those additions to the Cougars’ 2015 recruiting class offered proof that Herman and his staff’s pitch was resonating with players.
Houston scored again in the next cycle when Lovejoy (Texas) High quarterback Bowman Sells rebuffed reported offers from Clemson, Texas and Ohio State to commit to the Cougars in early May.
But Oliver’s pledge legitimized Houston in a way Sells and any other recruit Herman had landed in his short time on the job could not: It gave the Cougars an A-lister around which to build their class. After Oliver committed, Houston secured pledges from 12 players—including coveted safety Collin Wilder and promising receivers Keith Corbin and Marquez Stevenson—over an 11-week span.
Herman seemed to indirectly address the impact of Oliver’s commitment in an essay on Campus Rush earlier this month. “The big momentum swing for our 2016 class came from the verbal commitment of a top recruit in May,” Herman wrote. “The big shoe dropped with a highly ranked player, and everyone suddenly said, ‘This is real.’ Just getting that verbal commitment gave us credibility, and it snowballed from there.” NCAA rules prohibit Herman from publicly commenting on unsigned recruits, but it’s not difficult to decipher to whom he was referring.
From Oliver’s perspective, Herman has done an “excellent job” selling Houston to prospects. Below is a list of the top players who have committed to the Cougars since Herman was hired.
Under Herman, Houston has adopted “H-Town Takeover” as a slogan for its emphasis on keeping the best players in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities at home. It’s a bit of a throwback to the strategy Miami used in the 1980s under Howard Schnellenberger to hoard South Florida’s top talent. For the Cougars, executing this plan could prove difficult for a number of reasons, chief among them the wealth of alternatives for Texas’s top prospects.
Texas A&M can distinguish itself by being the state’s lone SEC program. TCU and Baylor were the Big 12’s only playoff contenders last year. And Texas is the flagship school that will become a more attractive destination if it can show signs of progress under Charlie Strong. Many programs from other leagues across the country also look to the Lone Star State when filling out their classes. That’s a lot of competition for Houston.
The Cougars beat out a parade of big boys for Oliver, but they also had built-in advantages with his brother on the roster and his former coach joining Herman’s staff. That’s not to detract from the importance of securing a commitment from a prospect of Oliver’s caliber, but it suggest that he should be viewed as an exceptional case when assessing Houston’s recruiting prowess. It would be unreasonable to think that, based on Oliver’s commitment, the Cougars will be major players in the recruitment of Texas’s blue-chip prospects from now on.
Consider four recruits who drew scholarship offers from Houston and whom Oliver said he was trying to persuade to join him as part of the Cougars’ 2016 class. Westfield teammate and four-star dual-threat quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole committed to Arizona State in July. Standout defensive end Isaiah Chambers pledged to TCU last week. Highly touted defensive tackle Jordan Elliott committed to the Cougars in May, only to renounce his commitment in September. And top-200 wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, another Westfield product, is undecided, but his comments in an interview with Rivals.com last month suggest he’s unlikely to pick Houston.
While the Cougars’ recruiting may not undergo a revolution overnight, Herman’s track record should inspire confidence about the future.
Prior to becoming Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, Herman coached at Texas Lutheran, Texas, Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. Those stops helped him develop relationships with Texas high school coaches, a group that any college coach looking for players in the state would do well to get along with. After being hired by Ohio State in 2011, Herman used those relationships to boost the Buckeyes’ efforts in a major talent hotbed. Of course, convincing Texas recruits to join a Group of Five program that hasn’t won more than eight games in a season since 2011 will be more difficult than getting them to sign to play for the defending national champions.
“[Herman] has national championship-level experience and he’s coached under guys like an Urban Meyer, so he understands the approach and what it takes to build,” says Matt Clare, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com and publisher of LoneStarPreps.com. “So I don’t think he’s going to let the foot off the gas, if you will, after year one. So, yes, because he’s new and because he has built such a good staff, they are having some immediate success. However, I do think to sustain that maybe longer term it’s going to take either some great success on the field moving forward and maybe getting their name out there more nationally to really get kids.”
Whether progress comes or not, Oliver alone represents a massive victory for Herman’s first full class at Houston. Oliver recorded 84 tackles and seven sacks last season and is renowned for his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. “Maybe not traditionally the big gap-stuffer, but when he gets off the line, he’s very violent at the point of contact and he can shed blocks and just knife through double teams very quickly,” Clare says. Westfield’s co-defensive coordinator A.J. Blum says Oliver’s most distinct attribute may be his motor. “The ability to play 100 miles an hour from start to finish. He can be out of position, but his speed and his motor is what puts him back into position.”
Verbal pledges may not mean as much as they once did, but Oliver’s commitment has undoubtedly fueled optimism about Houston’s recruiting. Will the Cougars actually sign Oliver? He says he’s 100 percent committed to Houston “as of this moment,” though he intends to take visits to other programs and mentioned TCU and Baylor as schools that continue to recruit him.
While Houston may have to fight to keep him through signing day, for now he serves as prima facie evidence of the Cougars’ recruiting success under Herman.