Matt Meekins remembers having to institute an “Ed Oliver Rule” during spring football practices at Westfield High School in Houston. It was either that, or his offense would never execute a successful inside run.
The rule was simple: For the six inside run plays on the practice script, Oliver, then a sophomore defensive tackle, could only be on the field for half of them.
“It’s kind of like the kid in Little League that scored too many touchdowns on offense, and after he scored four or five, then he couldn’t touch the ball anymore,” Meeks, Westfield’s coach for 17 years, said by phone. “Ed was the version of that on defense, because he’s putting whoever it is, the center or the guard, in the backfield, so you’re never going to get anywhere with any kind of pull-scheme, gap-scheme play.”
To the surprise of no one who followed his remarkable high school career, Oliver proceeded to become a standout defensive tackle in college and is viewed as one of the top prospects for the April 25-27 NFL Draft. Some prognosticators, such as ESPN’s Todd McShay, see the Buffalo Bills addressing one of their key needs by using the ninth overall pick on Oliver – assuming he’s still available.
Oliver told reporters that the Bills were one of the many teams that met with him in February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where he showed off his freakish physical ability, running 4.73 in the 40-yard dash and benching 225 pounds 32 times.
Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott attended Oliver's pro day at the University of Houston. At one point, McDermott was watching Oliver so closely in a drill that the two nearly collided. Oliver also said he had a pre-draft visit to Buffalo.
“They’re looking for a three-technique,” he said. “So we’ll see.”
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) March 28, 2019
The 6-foot-2, 281-pound Oliver made his mark at Houston. However, Meekins recalls that during one of those spring sessions in Oliver’s sophomore year at Westfield, he thought Arkansas was a potential destination. An assistant coach for the Razorbacks couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched how singularly disruptive one player in the middle of the defense could be.
This was shortly before the “Ed Oliver Rule” was put in place.
“He was on the field for all six plays and literally blew up every play,” Meekins said. “I just remember the Arkansas coach, who’s now somewhere else, saying, 'He can play for us right now.’ And I was sitting there thinking the same thing, saying, ‘This guy’s got like two years left in high school, and he could be on a college campus athletically.’ ”
It would stand to reason that someone who commanded so much respect for his skills at such a young age would have a great deal of self-confidence. Put a large check in that box for Oliver.
"You couldn’t tell him he couldn’t do something athletically. He would challenge you, whether it was in the weight room or running drills or doing something like that."
— A.J. Blum, Ed Oliver's former high school defensive coordinator and college defensive line coach.
At the combine, he had no problem reciting what he believes sets him apart from others in what is widely viewed as an elite crop of defensive linemen.
“Probably just my playing style, my high-motor style of play,” Oliver said. “How aggressive I am and how much of a penetrator I am. Just the different swag I can bring to a defensive line. I can change the whole defense, honestly.”
This is how he described himself as a player: “Faster than most. Violent with a high motor.”
He is favorably compared with the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, considered the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman and arguably the best defensive player in the league. The Associated Press named Donald the league’s Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons.
Oliver said he models his game after Donald, because of their similar physiques: Donald is 6-1 and 285 pounds.
“His style of play is truly amazing,” Oliver said. “To see what he’s done at this size … and I feel I can do the same thing, if not better.”
He won’t get any arguments from his high school or college coaches. A.J. Blum was Westfield’s defensive coordinator when Oliver played there. Blum also was defensive line coach at the University of Houston through Oliver’s final two collegiate seasons.
They first met when Oliver was in sixth grade, during a football clinic that Westfield’s coaching staff conducted for players in its feeder middle-school programs.
“In seventh grade, I watched him hang on the rim in the gym when I came to visit one day,” Blum said by phone. “And he wasn’t the tallest kid and he had a lot of baby fat on him; he was a chubby kid. You couldn’t tell him he couldn’t do something athletically. He would challenge you, whether it was in the weight room or running drills or doing something like that.
“In our program, we tried to reload. So we always talked to the young kids as being the next ones, the next Under Armour All-American and this and that. When he was a freshman in high school – I remember like it was yesterday – he told me that he wasn’t going to be the next one that I coached, he was going to be the best one that I coached. And that was when he was 14 years old. I was like, ‘OK, show me.’ I think that was one of the things that drove him — to be better than all of those guys that came before him and to try to set a standard that nobody else could reach.”
One blemish on his record
The negatives on Oliver are few — some analysts have pointed to his lack of size and his drop in production in his final college season. But a potential blemish that has followed him since last November was a sideline incident during a game against Toledo that he sat out because of an aching knee. Oliver was wearing an oversized jacket that, according to team rules, was only to be worn by active starting players. Coach Major Applewhite told Oliver to remove the jacket, and the two had a heated argument while heading to the locker room at halftime.
Oliver had to be restrained by teammates and staff, and he didn’t return to the sideline for the second half. He apologized later, while Applewhite downplayed the incident.
How has Oliver handled questions about the incident from NFL teams?
“I answer like I always answer: 100 percent truthfully,” he said at the combine. “It was what it was; it was a misunderstanding. We hashed it out a day later. I still keep in touch with Coach Applewhite, and he was my head coach.”
Said Blum, “I didn’t know anything about it until I got in the tunnel up to the locker room. Obviously, it’s kind of been a deal where I’ve handled Ed. I’ve always taken care of Ed, being his coach. I think it was a little blown out of proportion. I also think that when you look at the competitive nature that Ed has in his heart, to sit and watch and not be able to play, I think there’s a lot of things that factor into the frustration, which kind of overflowed.”
Oliver acknowledged that his combine meetings with teams weren’t easy. He ranked his sit-down with the Miami Dolphins as one of the “harder” ones.
“They just pull up the worst plays they can find,” Oliver said. “I don’t have any just horrible plays, but plays where you could have done better here and there. You have to own up to that, whether it's technique or effort. You explain the play and go about your business.”
He spent most of the 2018 season working from nose tackle. It was the spot from where the scheme often had him rushing the quarterback. A bruised knee caused him to miss four games, and he finished the year with three sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
That was a decline from 2017, when he had 5.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in 12 games.
“When you rush out of nose with a three-man line like we did this (past) year, it leaves two guards to block you,” Oliver said. “The ends are outside contain, so you have two guards blocking down on you. With the extra attention I brought this year, it was a little harder for me to get used to three guys and six hands on you.”
Meekins will never forget watching Oliver’s first college game. Oliver was playing on the nose then, too, yet he was making tackles on the sideline.
The coach can’t recall working with another player with his level of talent – or drive.
“In high school and even in college, he was the example,” Meekins said. “He was always at the front of the line, always trying to sharpen his (skills). He wanted to be coached hard. He wanted people to be transparent with him, not tell him what he wanted to he hear, because he wants to be the best.”