Ed Oliver’s impact goes beyond his sack total

October 19, 2018

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Five games into the season, and Ed Oliver was looking for his first sack. He had come oh-so-close several times, but still nothing.

As a nose guard in the University of Houston’s 3-4 defensive alignment, sacks, really any measurable statistics, are supposed to be harder to come by. Most of the time is spent in the trenches, clogging up running lanes and taking up blocks.

“Nose guards get double-teamed every play,” Oliver said. “It’s nothing new. It’s not a new thing for Ed Oliver. It’s just the position I play.”

This month, Matt Brown, a staff editor at the Atlantic, posted on Twitter, “Important Ed Oliver asterisk this season” with a photo of Oliver facing three Tulsa blockers.

The scene has been repeated over and over this season, as teams regularly double- and triple-team Oliver. Sometimes even that is not enough to slow the 6-3, 292-pound Outland Trophy winner and two-time All-American who is one of the best players in college football.

“He’s a great football player, and there are going to be a lot of different schemes that he’s going to face this season,” said coach Major Applewhite, whose team is off to a 5-1 start and in first place in the American Athletic Conference West Division at 2-0. “He’s going to get everything from snap count, to perimeter runs, trap blocks and double teams and triple teams.

“He’s going to see it all.”

And, yet, none of it seems to matter. Entering Saturday’s game against Navy (2-4, 1-2 AAC), Oliver leads all defensive linemen nationally with an average eight tackles per game. Finally, in his breakout game this season, Oliver had two sacks and tied an AAC single-game record with five tackles for loss and forced a fumble in last week’s 42-20 win at East Carolina. To date, Oliver has 185 tackles and 51 tackles for loss in 31 career games.

“He’s always given us trouble,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week.

In last year’s meeting, Oliver had a career-high 14 tackles, 3½ for loss, and two sacks against Navy. As a freshman, Oliver made 11 tackles (nine solo), including 1½ for loss.

Oliver has been so disruptive that Niumatalolo said his staff has prepared a special game plan for Oliver. The only other time Niumatalolo has done that was for a game against Pitt’s Aaron Donald, the 2013 Outland Trophy winner and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Los Angeles Rams.

What stands out, Niumatalolo said, is Oliver’s relentless pursuit to the football everywhere on the field.

“He’s just so good you have to look at him schematically and think of ways to try and account for him,” he said. “He’s that dynamic and that disruptive.”

In a Week 2 win over Arizona, Oliver was double-teamed on 26 of 40 snaps in the first half, according to Sports Illustrated. Blocking Oliver one-on-one is futile; three of his four quarterback pressures in the game came on solo matchups.

None of it fazes Oliver, who some project as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

“Put three on me and I’m going to fight,” he said. “I’m going to grind it out.”

East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said the ultimate respect for Oliver isn’t how many blockers are assigned to him, but “spending a ridiculous amount of time” searching for ways to stop him.

“He has a unique skill set,” Montgomery said. “You don’t get a chance to see these guys but maybe once every 10 years. The ultimate respect for a player like Ed is knowing that offenses are spending multiple hours on trying to find different ways to slow him down in the run game, in the pass game. It’s not as simple as putting two and three [blockers] on him. It’s about strategic details, being able to adjust and adapt.”

Those are things that won’t show up in the box score — and warrant an asterisk this season.

“It’s hard to account for the production he allows others to have,” Applewhite said.