- Ed Oliver didn't choose one of the Power 5 powerhouse programs that offered him scholarships. His success at Houston shows how elite recruits can have successful college careers and build up their NFL draft stocks outside of the national spotlight.
HOUSTON — Kyle Allen is re-enacting something he didn’t consider humanly possible. “He was at the nose,” the Houston quarterback says. “He had contain.”
He is sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver, and nothing about the design of the spring practice play Allen describes should end with Oliver sacking his fellow No. 10. Allen walks through the play just to show a visitor exactly how much ground Oliver covered in fewer than four seconds. Oliver was supposed to twist from his nose tackle position and run outside the offensive tackle. There, he would set the edge in case of a handoff on a read option. But once Oliver realized Allen intended to throw, he planted, spun inside the tackle and attacked the quarterback. Only the practice rules against hitting the quarterback prevented Houston managers from having to clean an Allen-shaped stain off the field.
“I looked at my tackle like ‘I don’t really know what to say,’” says Allen, who after studying the play on video still can’t figure out exactly how Oliver diagnosed the play and reacted so fast. Oliver isn’t sure how he did it, either. But he has learned that when his instincts tell him to do something on the field, they’re usually correct. “Football is all about reaction,” he says. “I’ll argue about that with anybody. You don’t think. You react.”
Take Houston's nationally televised 36-10 annihilation of Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Oliver had two of Houston’s 11 sacks, but he helped contribute to several of the others by deflecting three passes on plays where Louisville coaches commanded Jackson to catch and throw so Houston’s pass rush couldn’t reach him. Once Jackson realized Oliver also could scuttle a play by moving laterally down the line of scrimmage and leaping, Jackson began looking for Oliver on every play. If he saw the 290-pound Houston native, he’d tuck the ball and try to reset. That gave Houston’s other rushers more time to reach Jackson. During a practice this spring, Oliver swatted passes regularly. He also claims there is no science to this. “Sometimes I’m not supposed to do it,” says Oliver, who finished his freshman season with 66 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, five sacks, nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles. “But I just watch the quarterback and wait and anticipate and they throw the ball to me.” Besides, Oliver isn’t particularly interested in tallying stats from this portion of his game. “I’m a run stopper. I am what I am,” he says. “I’m an OK pass rusher. If I get pass deflections, so be it. If I get sacks, so be it. As long as nobody is running at my face, I’ll be good.”
Whether this is the truth, modesty or an effort by Oliver to keep his trade secrets under wraps doesn’t matter. College offenses must find a way to deal with him for two more seasons, and if he has made the kind of leap most players make between their freshman and sophomore seasons, good luck with that.
What will be most interesting isn’t Oliver’s instinctual reaction to the double-teams and catch-and-throws he’ll face but the reaction of future recruits to Oliver’s story. Since the dawn of the Recruiting Industrial Complex at the turn of this century, Oliver is the highest ranked recruit to sign with a Group of Five—or non-BCS, depending on the year—program out of high school. He’s listed at 6-3, but he’s really somewhere between 6-1 and 6-2, but that didn’t matter to college coaches. Oliver was no tweener. Every coach who saw him play at Westfield High wanted him on the interior of their defensive line. Oliver finished high school as the sixth-ranked player in the country according to the 247Sports Composite.
Two factors helped convince Oliver to choose Houston over LSU, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Florida State, Michigan and everyone else. His older brother Marcus plays guard for the Cougars, and former Westfield coach Corby Meekins was on Tom Herman’s Houston staff. (Meekins has since moved with Herman to Texas.) Another factor was a desire to shine in his hometown instead of someone else’s town. “I really didn’t know how fast I would come on the scene, but I did know I wanted to play for my city,” Oliver said. “It’s just evolved into what it’s become—to show for the city that if you come to play here like me, you can do big things.”
Oliver has wondered how he might have fit in at a school such as LSU or Texas A&M. Given what he did last year, it’s a safe bet he also would have started pretty much anywhere except (maybe) Alabama or Clemson. He starts to say that he might have been “average” at one of those places, but he quickly dismisses this notion when reminded that no one who watched his freshman year would believe he could be average anywhere.
Oliver’s emergence has given him more confidence as a recruiter for the Cougars. He believes other blue-chippers in one of America’s most prospect-rich areas should follow his path instead of simply assuming their only path to the NFL is the Power Five. Oliver, who looks and plays like the Rams’ Aaron Donald did at Pittsburgh, won’t last long in the 2019 draft if he stays healthy. He believes other Houstonians can do the same if they stay home. “A big-time recruit can come here and explode into a big name,” Oliver says.
Major Applewhite, who was promoted to head coach after Herman left for Austin, uses Oliver’s example every chance he gets. “You want to keep building your story right here,” Applewhite says. “To me, that’s the thing.” Part of Applewhite’s pitch is that even NFL-bound players ultimately may want to build a post-football life in their hometown. Why not begin making connections in college that could pay dividends 15 years later? “You’re going to move back to Houston,” Applewhite says. “You’re not going to go back to Lincoln and set up shop there.”
To prove that conference affiliation is no barrier to the NFL, Applewhite offers the example of cornerback William Jackson, a Houston native who came to the Cougars as a junior college transfer and wound up the 24th pick in the 2016 draft. To prove Houston offers flexibility some of the Power Five programs don’t, Applewhite also brings up current sophomore D’Eriq King, who played quarterback at nearby Manvel (Texas) High and probably would have emerged as a star at slot receiver anywhere in the Big 12. Depth issues forced the 5-10, 170-pound King to start four games at receiver last year, but he finished as quarterback Greg Ward Jr.’s backup. He’ll get a chance to back up Allen this season, but no matter the position, Applewhite likely will find a way to get the ball into King’s hands. If all goes according to Applewhite's plan, King will find his way into the NFL at some position. “There are certain guys who say ‘I have to go to Alabama. I have to go to Ohio State,’” Applewhite says. “But that’s the cream of the cream of the crop. … When you go to the NFL combine and you put on one of those Dri-Fits, it has a number on it. It doesn’t have a conference on it.”
But the best proof of concept Applewhite can offer for his overarching pitch to a highly ranked recruit looks something like this…
“It’s theory and testimony,” Applewhite says. “That’s the thing talking to recruits. A lot of people can sell you theory. Who can sell you testimony?”
“I feel,” Oliver says, “like I’m kind of like a living testimony.”
A RANDOM RANKING
Eater recently held a contest to determine the worst restaurant name in America, and some of the names truly were horrible. (Congratulations to Boston’s Blunch, but Thelonious Monkfish in nearby Cambridge, Mass., may have been robbed.) Some of the names, however, were tremendous. The punnier, the better. I’d absolutely eat at a place called Pork and Mindy’s. So today, we’ll rank the punniest restaurant names in America.
1. Praise The Lard (Buford, Ga.)
2. Pho Shizzle (Renton, Wash.)
3. Juan In A Million (Austin, Texas)
4. Bread Zeppelin (Irving, Texas)
5. Grillenium Falcon (the food truck for Hammontree’s, the excellent grilled cheese shop in Fayetteville, Ark.)
6. The Wiener’s Circle (Chicago)
7. Earth, Wind and Flour (Santa Monica, Calif.)
8. Custard’s Last Stand (Lee’s Summit, Mo.)
9. The Nosh Pit (Detroit)
10. Ms. Cheezious (Miami)
THREE AND OUT
1. USA Today’s Josh Peter detailed two creepy allegations—including one from an on-the-record source—against former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze from Freeze’s time as a high school coach in Tennessee. Freeze has denied the allegations, but they look even worse when combined with the pattern of behavior his Ole Miss bosses found (and Freeze admitted to them) after they examined his phone records following the discovery of a call to an escort service. With more specifics bound to emerge from Freeze’s ouster at Ole Miss, this story likely will get even uglier.
2. The circumstances of the firing of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus were not lost on Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin, who was fired from USC in a similar fashion. The question now is whether the act of getting fired at the airport shortly after touchdown will still be referred to as “getting Lane Kiffin’d.” Will it now be called “getting Reince Priebus’d?”
3. You’ve heard of coaches running conditioning drills with their players to stay in shape. At Southern Miss, first-year athletic director Jon Gilbert proved that the guy at the top of the organizational chart can handle a football conditioning test.
WHAT'S EATING ANDY
The good news for Dabo Swinney is that he’s really, really great at his day job.
WHAT'S ANDY EATING
When my wife and I dine out, our options are fairly limited. After much trial and error, my bride discovered about three years ago that the reason she kept getting flu-like symptoms for days at a time was an allergy to wheat.
Once she cut out the wheat, everything improved. Except eating out. That became a constant challenge to suss out every hidden ingredient on every menu. Even the movie theater caused problems. Who knew Twizzlers had wheat flour in them? This state of affairs probably worked out better for me because steakhouses and barbecue joints are quite friendly to people with wheat or gluten allergies*, but she’d rather have a little more variety. If we lived in Birmingham, Ala., she’d have a new favorite restaurant. Owners Adam and Fawn Freis created a 100-percent gluten free menu at Delta Blues Hot Tamales, and they didn’t lose an ounce of flavor in the process.
The owners opted for gluten-free because Fawn has Celiac disease, and the tamale is an ideal building block for a gluten-free restaurant. It’s made primarily of corn, and the most common additions are meat or beans. At Delta Blues, the Freises make their spicy pork or black bean tamales Mississippi Delta-style. Instead of steaming the tamales as a cook in Arizona might, Mississippi cooks traditionally boiled them in a spicy liquid. The result is a moist comfort food kept warm by its corn husk wrapper.
Though the standard husk-wrapped tamales are available (and delicious) at Delta Blues, the place endeavors to make its tamales even more comfortable by serving them unwrapped and smothered in all manner of regional delicacies. I ordered the Tamale Pie, where the tamales stand in for Fritos and swim in a mix of chili, cheddar cheese, sour cream jalapeños and green onions. This was as decadent as I’d hoped. The tangy chili paired well with the spicy tamales and the jalapeños, and the sour cream cooled it just enough. I also ordered the Holy Chipotle, which tops the tamales with chipotle cream and charred corn relish. It was tasty, but I couldn’t stop kicking myself for missing the crawfish etouffee-smothered tamales (The Crawdaddy) at the bottom of the menu.
I did not, however, miss the catfish tacos. Chunks of cornmeal-battered catfish come mixed with vinegary slaw, comeback sauce (churched-up Thousand Island) and a pickle on corn tortillas. You can order the tamales by the dozen, but it’s probably best for my longterm health that these tacos aren’t available by the dozen. Once I started, I probably couldn’t stop until they all disappeared.
But don’t eat too many of those tacos. Save room—even if for just a bite—of the flourless chocolate mousse cake. It doesn’t look like it when it arrives, but these pucks of dense dark chocolate delight can serve an entire table. I don’t typically advocate sharing desserts. That practice usually starts fights. But do share this. It is a black hole of chocolate, and more than about three or four bites after a bunch of butterbean hummus, tamales, tacos and fried jalapeños will make the body began to collapse upon itself.
But that body won’t have ingested any gluten, and for all the menu-scourers out there trying to find one or two dishes they or their loved ones can eat, this is indeed a blessing.
*I realize it’s trendy to go gluten free these days for non-allergy reasons, but here’s a message for the people who can eat wheat but now buy gluten-free versions of the same items because they are slaves to a fad. Just stop. After making plenty of gluten free pancakes and gluten free cookies the past few years, I can assure you that the rice or tapioca flours in the stuff you’re buying contain just as many empty calories as the much cheaper wheat flour you’re forsaking. Plus, the wheat versions still taste better. So don’t give it up unless your body makes you give it up or because you’ve opted to ditch flour-based products entirely (Which actually would be the healthier choice).