Editor's Note: College football is BACK. Get to know the three SURE-FIRE superstars who are guaranteed to dominate this season.
Part 1 (Tuesday): Nick Bosa
Part 2 (Wednesday): AJ Dillon
Part 3 (Thursday): Ed Oliver
HOUSTON — Ed Oliver shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be sitting at a sticky picnic table outside Burns Original BBQ in late June, down the street from where he used to ride horses as a child, staring down a heaping plate of ribs, chicken, green beans and rice as industrial fans do their best to cool the humid air.
And sure, he probably shouldn't have walked next door to order a bag of fries from Burns Burger Shack while he waited. And he could have left his dog at home when he took off for lunch. But instead, the windows of his brown Ford F-150 are cracked, the air conditioning is on full throttle, and the Great Dane is waiting comfortably in the passenger seat as the engine rumbles 30 feet away.
As was the case long before he became one of the most dominant forces in college football—a defensive tackle one NFL scout called "Aaron Donald with prototype size"—Oliver does things his way.
That's precisely how the nation's No. 6 prospect in the 2016 recruiting class wound up here. Not at LSU or Texas or Alabama but the University of Houston.
In deciding to play for his home city and with his brother, Marcus, who started all 12 games as a senior on the offensive line last season, Oliver did something almost no elite high school football player ever does. He turned down every sales pitch and major program in college football.
Which leads us back to this sticky picnic table. Oliver should not be here. Based on ability alone, he should be long gone, being paid millions of dollars to torment quarterbacks as a professional.
Though multiple NFL scouts felt he would've been a top-five pick in the 2018 draft, Oliver didn't have that option. NFL rules stipulate he return to the Cougars for his third season before becoming draft-eligible.
As for the 2019 draft, Oliver already has declared his intent to enter it.
"I wasn't about to get asked that question a million times all year," he says between bites. "I'm here to play football. I don't need a million interviews every other day. I ain't here for that."
That decision, however, leads to another question. As a likely top selection, should Oliver risk it? Should he suit up for a team that doesn't figure to compete for the national championship?
"That's crazy talk," he says, cutting the question short. "I love the game too much. I can't sit there and watch my guys go to war while I'm chillin' on the bench. When we're grinding the whole offseason together, I'm gonna sit on the bench?
"Nah. That's not how this is going to go."
From behind his desk inside his office overlooking the weight room, Rod Grace is feverishly scrolling through his iPad.
The device houses the data on every lift and personal best Oliver has posted over the past three years. And though Houston's director of sports performance knows most of the numbers by heart, it doesn't make the exercise any less enjoyable.
"I hear coaches talk about the four-year rule: It takes four years to master the weight room," Grace says. "But the special guys have a four-week rule, and that's what Ed is. You introduce something one week, and by the fourth week, he's damn good at it."
Oliver arrived capable of squatting more than 500 pounds. Eight weeks later, before he had played a snap, he was squatting more than 600.
These days, Oliver squats more than 650 pounds and power-cleans 385, figures considered elite for NFL players. His vertical leap is 36 inches, his broad jump 10'1". Both would have placed him among the top three defensive linemen at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.
But those extraordinary marks are eclipsed in Grace's mind by the incredible feats of athleticism he has witnessed from Oliver.
Like the time he landed a 48-inch box jump on only one leg—prompting the two to share a laugh amid disbelief. Or earlier this year when Oliver demanded one rep against skill-position players in an agility drill after he had demolished his fellow linemen.
"He beat every single one—our wideouts; you name 'em," Grace says.
Oliver has chased down Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, tormenting them with two sacks apiece. He won the Outland Trophy—given to the best interior lineman in college football—despite playing in the American Athletic, a non-Power Five conference.
Oliver is listed at 6'3" and 292 pounds but has said he plays at least 10 pounds lighter. In his first two seasons, he accumulated 39.5 tackles for loss in only 25 games—more than all but one player, former South Florida defensive end George Selvie, who had 46.5 in 26 games in 2006-07.
"The first thing you notice is the explosion," an NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "He's so powerful at the snap because that explosion is so quick, so overwhelming. And he's one of those rare interior guys that are just as dominant in the run game as they are getting after the quarterback.
"He's a top-five guy stepping on the field."
There wasn't a news conference. In fact, the school had to scramble to put out a release because it didn't have anything crafted in advance.
When Oliver on March 5 said his junior year would be his last, it was met with surprise. Not the decision but the timing. While most juniors wait until the end of their seasons to declare their intent to enter the NFL draft, Oliver didn't see the point.
Since his arrival, Oliver had made clear college was "a three-year business trip," he says. But few within the program knew he would say so on the team's first day of spring practice.
"My momma didn't even know," says Oliver, who broke the news in response to a question. "I just spoke from the heart."
Since then, Oliver and his family have prepared for the next step. Like arranging an insurance policy to protect him financially against serious injury. Or the discussion he had with his mother regarding completing his degree, a promise Oliver says he will fulfill in time.
Cougars head coach Major Applewhite was not surprised by the timing of Oliver's announcement.
"I think he was honestly thinking: 'To hell with this. I'm going pro,'" he says. "'I chased Lamar Jackson all over the damn field. Who are we kidding?' He's very matter of fact like that.
"Ed's not going to break your rules, but he's not going to play by your rules."
Still, Oliver doesn't view himself as a trendsetter. Nor does he hope or care if more players follow his lead.
"When you declare, just be genuine about it, man," Oliver says. "Get it out the way, and go ahead, play your season. I didn't do it for attention. I don't need the attention. I wanted you all to leave me alone."
That's not to say Oliver hasn't thought about what might have been. As he heard the names of defensive player after defensive player called during the 2018 NFL draft—players Oliver felt he was more skilled than and worked harder than—he couldn't help himself.
"Part of me wishes that things were different," he says. "I think some players should be let into the league strictly off enough coaches who say, 'Yeah, I would draft him the first round.'"
South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney was in a similar position after his sophomore season. A former No. 1 recruit, he became the No. 1 NFL prospect right around the time he annihilated Vincent Smith in the Michigan backfield in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
Though the two play different positions—Clowney end and Oliver tackle—they finished their sophomore years having clearly outgrown their sport.
"It was pretty much understood that he would be here three years and go," former Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier says of Clowney. "He was in his own category."
Before his junior year, many questioned whether Clowney should play at all. Having watched South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffer back-to-back season-ending knee injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons—the second of which derailed his NFL career—Spurrier knew what was at stake.
The question, Spurrier says, was this: "You have a chance to financially secure yourself and your family. Is it really worth it to play that third year? We certainly appreciate what Jadeveon did. He could have sat out and probably still been the No. 1 pick."
Since Clowney played his junior year through injuries that limited his snaps, draft prospects have begun to take their NFL futures into their own hands. Running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, top-10 picks in the 2017 draft, sat out bowl games after dealing with nagging injuries.
A handful of others last season made the same choice, protecting themselves from potential injuries. At a time when players are developing a voice on this issue, there is no better candidate to push the conversation forward than Oliver.
"Everybody has said it to me," Oliver says. "They say, 'You can sit out this year, and you're still going to go top five.' But that's wrong. Not playing for a school that's done everything for you is wrong. You're going to be remembered as the guy who worked out with the team then sat out? The guy who didn't go 100 because of your future?"
Oliver says he plans to play in Houston's bowl game, if the team makes one and he's remotely healthy.
Rather than avoid injury by avoiding snaps, he has adopted a different mindset heading into the season.
Play hard enough that you won't get hit.
His coaches know they will most likely never have a player of this caliber again, and they are approaching this season with that in mind.
They view Oliver as not just the best college football player in America but a rare talent who can single-handedly influence the outcome of games from a position where that can be difficult.
Applewhite has talked to Oliver about the way LeBron James and Stephen Curry impact those around them.
"How far is he going to bring this team? I think that will say a lot about him," Applewhite says. "Can he make all the plays? No. Can LeBron make all the plays? No. But how far can he bring us?"
A.J. Blum, Houston's defensive line coach, also coached Oliver at Westfield High School. He can feel the effect Oliver is having away from the field—where he is trying to recruit the next great defensive lineman to join the Cougars.
"There are so many guys in the city that will say: 'I want to be the next Ed. I want to take the same path Ed Oliver took,'" Blum says. "I think that's really the legacy he's going to leave here."
With his tray of barbecue empty and his bag of fries dwindling, Oliver wants to make one thing clear: His story cannot be about his draft status and signing bonus and the professional leap he will take starting near the end of the year. His story, at least for now, should be about the next four months.
"I gotta be remembered for something," says Oliver, whose high school team lost in the state quarterfinals in 2013 and state semifinals in 2014. "This is my city. I have zero rings since I started playing football. We gotta win a conference and a bowl game. I'd be damned if I leave another level of football without getting a ring."
To achieve that goal, Oliver has adopted a new routine this offseason. For someone whose preparation has always been intense, he has finally allowed himself to slow down.
More treatment. More stretching. More focus on his body and staying healthy.
"It's going to be a long season," he says. "I'm going to be there for every game."
As he gets up from the table, Oliver says hello to someone he recognizes. A year from now, things will be different. In all likelihood, he'll be a stranger in a new city for the first time.
But for at least a few more months, Oliver will play for the people in his hometown, not for the money or the fame, which he says he could gladly do without.
As he walks past the industrial fans and into the parking lot, his engine is still running.
Oliver eases into his truck and pets his dog, whose name carries extra-special significance. No matter what happens next year—wherever Oliver lands next—Houston will be by his side.