“He can embarrass you.”
“He can make you look bad.”
“He’s a freak.”
Those were some of the sentiments expressed by Arizona Wildcats coaches about Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver this week. They were not the usual platitudes one team’s representatives politely present about the other’s.
Entering his sophomore season, Oliver might be the best player in college football. So suggested NFL.com draft analyst Chad Reuter in his preseason ranking of the top 150 players in the sport. The three immediately behind him: star quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield.
“Oliver was the most impressive freshman defender in recent college football history,” Reuter wrote. “He’ll be a constant thorn in the side of offenses for the foreseeable future.”
For Arizona’s offense, that window opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Oliver and the Cougars will make their 2017 debut at Arizona Stadium after their opener was postponed because of Hurricane Harvey. If the Wildcats can’t keep Oliver out of the backfield, they likely will suffer their first loss.
Just ask Mayfield and Jackson. Oklahoma and Louisville each were ranked third in the AP Top 25 when Houston and Oliver upset them last season. Oliver had seven tackles, including two sacks, in his college debut against the Sooners. He had six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against the Cardinals.
For the season, Oliver amassed 66 tackles, 23 stops for losses and nine pass breakups. Arizona’s entire defensive line — including LB/DE DeAndre’ Miller — recorded 21.5 tackles for loss and seven passes broken up. The Wildcats are using three defensive tackles to simulate Oliver in practice.
“He’s a first-rounder,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Tremendous player. He plays with great leverage. He’s strong. He’s active. He runs to the ball. Everything anybody would want in an interior defensive lineman, he has it.
“Everybody knew that coming out of high school. He could have gone anywhere in the country. He’s been every bit as advertised and then some.”
A consensus five-star recruit whom ESPN ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the country, Oliver elected to play for his hometown Cougars. UH’s roster already featured his older brother, Marcus, who plays on the offensive line.
Ed Oliver exceeded the hype, earning first-team recognition on seven All-America teams. Former Houston coach Tom Herman, speaking to USA Today, likened Oliver to “a rolling ball with butcher knives. He just never stops.”
So how exactly do you slow down a guy like that?
UA offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said pad level and technique will be critical for interior blockers Jacob Alsadek, Nathan Eldridge and Christian Boettcher. Oliver is listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 290 pounds and relies more on leverage, first-step quickness and hustle than brute strength.
Arizona’s linemen have to “be right,” Michalczik said. “Take the right steps. Get your pad level down. Put your body in the right position. Then just go play.
“He can take you out of your game. That’s the big worry. You’ve got to trust in your technique. You’ve got to trust in your fundamentals. And you’ve got to be aggressive when you do it. As soon as you start playing hesitant, he’s going to make you look really bad.”
Alsadek praised Oliver’s second effort and said scout-team defensive tackle Matt Thomas has been executing countermoves after the initial block to help Arizona’s offensive linemen prepare for it.
Reserve quarterback Rhett Rodriguez noticed Oliver’s determination on film.
“He’ll be on the complete other side of the field,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll throw a screen away from him, and he’ll still run and at least get a hand on the guy.”
Watch Oliver’s highlights on YouTube, and you’ll see him tracking down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline – highly unusual for an interior defensive lineman.
But the biggest threat he poses to Arizona is between the tackles. Oliver considers himself a run stopper first and foremost, and he helped Houston rank fourth in the country in run defense last season.
The Cougars allowed 100.2 yards per game on the ground. The Wildcats led the Pac-12 in rushing last season (235 yards per game) and have topped 500 yards in each of their past two contests.
“Almost all offenses, if you have a nose tackle that’s coming in and getting in your face, that’s really hard,” Rhett Rodriguez said. “I think we’re going to have some different strategies to make sure he can’t singlehandedly change the game.”
Rich Rodriguez said tight end Jamie Nunley will return this week, and that’s good news for a UA team whose depth at the position is suddenly suspect.
Starter Trevor Wood exited the opener in the third quarter and had a boot on his left foot Tuesday. Wood also had pads on as he emerged from the weight room. His status for Saturday is to be determined.
Nunley, a redshirt freshman, missed Week 1 because of a back injury. After sitting out his freshman year, Nunley established himself as the No. 2 tight end entering this season. Freshman Bryce Wolma subbed for Wood in the opener. Fullback Jamardre Harris-Cobb also served as a blocker from the wing in the second half.
- Rodriguez on Houston’s talent level: “I see Power Five talent. Sometimes they get labeled. I don’t know why. They’ve got some of the best players in the country.” Houston plays in the AAC, one of the so-called “Group of Five” conferences.
- Quarterback Brandon Dawkins said the missed pass that stood out the most against Northern Arizona was his overthrow of Shawn Poindexter. Dawkins joked that he might be lifting too much. He added: “I gotta make sure I capitalize.”
- No. 2 quarterback Khalil Tate had a green jersey on as he left the practice field, indicating partial participation. Tate hurt his throwing shoulder in the second half against the Lumberjacks.
- Linebacker/defensive end DeAndre’ Miller still has a boot on his left foot after undergoing surgery in July. Rodriguez declined to update Miller’s status.