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Ed Oliver has unfinished business in Houston

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Aug. 20 College Football 2018 Issue. Subscribe today!

Ed Oliver rocked the recruiting world in 2015 when the five-star defensive tackle spurned blue-blood programs to play for his hometown Houston Cougars. He surprised everyone again when he helped upend No. 3 Oklahoma and almost single-handedly dominated Lamar Jackson — led Louisville as a true freshman in 2016. (A rival coach once called him “the closest thing to the Tasmanian devil I’ve ever seen.”) Then, before he’d played a down of his junior season, he declared for the 2019 NFL draft; many project him to be the top pick. It was all part of his three-year “business trip” through the college ranks.

Before Oliver leaves Houston, the Heisman candidate and reigning Outland Trophy winner has unfinished business: leading the Cougars to a New Year’s Six bowl and collecting more hardware. ESPN caught up with the two-time All-American in late July, and Oliver proved to be as candid off the field as he is exceptional on it.

ESPN: Are you savoring your last year of college football?
OLIVER:
Yeah. I find myself thinking, “Wow, this is my final rodeo in college.” I wanted to get to the [NFL] so fast that I missed out on a lot of the college experience. I chose a business trip when I decided to come to the University of Houston, and that’s exactly what it’s been. I ain’t come to college to have fun, but I got a lot done in a little bit of time.

How were you able to stay focused and pass up the fun stuff?
For one, I had to keep up with my brother, Marcus. When I was a true freshman, he was [a junior offensive lineman for the Cougars]. I had to work triple time to beat out a good fifth-year senior, B.J. Singleton, just to get on the field. I had to do everything pretty much 10 times better than anyone else. My first couple of practices, I played with the threes [third string]. I felt disrespected every day. Then, when I got to practice with the ones, I still felt disrespected because they couldn’t block me either.

Did you ask [then-defensive coordinator] Todd Orlando, “Why did you put me with the threes?”
Nah, I was humble about it. Coach Orlando kept it G with me. I remember him saying in a press conference, “Whether Ed plays 10 plays or 30 plays a game is up to him.” All I heard was “30 plays.” Only 30? C’mon. I’m playing the whole game. You can go back and watch the film. As a true freshman, I was playing the whole game, dominating the whole game.

You had the chance to go to LSU, Oklahoma and other schools that produce more NFL draft picks. Why did you choose Houston?
In almost every [recruiting] interview they asked me: “What’s your dream school?” My answer: “LSU.” I was almost a Louisianimal. I still hate that I didn’t go there, but I can’t be in two places at once. I might go get my degree from LSU, just to say I went there.

So what changed your mind?
Marcus. I was going to play football with my brother. If he wasn’t already at the University of Houston, I wouldn’t be here.


When you picked the Cougars, you said that people who criticized you would realize that you made the right choice. Do you consider playing for Houston a badge of pride?
After Houston beat Florida State to win the Peach Bowl [in 2015], people shut up. Then we came back and beat [No. 3] Oklahoma the next season, and I didn’t hear nothing from nobody. For about six games, it was crickets. Then we lost to Navy. A handful of people then said I made the wrong decision. They might not like the decision, but they know I didn’t make the wrong one.

Did Tom Herman’s decision to leave in November 2016 for rival Texas bother you?
I never came to the school to play for no coach. Coach Herman was fine and dandy. He had a lot of hype around him. When [Herman and others] left, I was like a kid in an orphanage. “Where are my people at?” But new guys like [defensive line coach A.J.] Blum came in. It was like I got new parents.

What did you do during this year’s NFL draft?
I didn’t watch much of it, to be honest. I might have watched the first couple of picks. But I don’t care about the draft.

So when experts started putting your name at No. 1 or No. 2 on mock drafts, that didn’t strike a chord with you?
No. They say you’re going No. 1 or No. 2, but it doesn’t mean anything until you actually go No. 1 or 2.

How do you counter getting consistently double- and triple-teamed by opponents?
The only way you’re beating three people is with perfect technique. You gotta have a little edge, a little dog about you. That comes from how you train your body and your mind in the offseason. I need to work out as hard as three people.

What’s left on your bucket list at Houston?
Get two rings, win a bowl game and a championship. Leave the place better than I found it — and it was pretty damn good when I got here. I don’t care about personal accolades. Team trophies are what’s important. They will be here long after I’m gone.

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