The best defensive linemen usually possess strength, agility and relentlessness known, in football parlance, as a "good motor."
The best lineman in college football — Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver — has those abilities, as well as horse power."I feel I have a natural, real strong grip," Oliver said. "I ride horses a lot, and hold the reins. With horses, you've got to play with the reins a lot. Maybe it was from holding those, I don't know, but I have a real strong grip."
Oliver uses his powerful hands to fight off grasping blockers, control centers, and push his way through double teams. Entering Sunday's Hawaii Bowl against Fresno State, Oliver has 14.5 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks.
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This month, he was named winner of the 72nd Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman. Oliver, a sophomore, was the fourth defensive tackle to win the award since 2007. He has 37.5 tackles for loss in his 24-game NCAA career.
"I think (Oliver's success) is a combination of his God-given ability and him being very coachable," said Houston defensive line coach A.J. Blum, who coached Oliver at Westfield High in Houston. "He's a good listener, and he focuses on his technique, and now here we are."
Although he played running back when he was younger, Oliver has spent the rest of his time on defense.
At Houston, he mixes and matches in the three-man front, mostly aligned at the nose.
But he also can play in the gaps or at end. "I can play anything, really," Oliver said. "It's all football to me."
Oliver is part of the current trend where players are not restricted to a label. "Football is evolving," said Oliver, who is 6-3 and 290 pounds. "I'm just a front-runner of how football is evolving."
Oliver has the first-step quickness to elude blocks. As a nose guard, one of his favorite moves is to barrel into a center's stance, then use his strength, leverage and grip to maneuver him out of the way.
"The biggest deficiency from a high school football player is his hands," Blum said. "High school football players don't know how to use their hands. That was one thing I take pride in at the high school level. He took it and ran with it."
Oliver dunked a basketball when he was 14. He bench pressed 395 pounds in high school. "I was scared," he conceded. "I got the weights up, but I didn't want the weights to fall on me." He now benches 430 pounds.
But it is is his cartilage-crushing grip that provides an added edge. Oliver credited Blum with teaching him proper hand techniques against blockers.
"It's from years of doing the same thing," Oliver said. "Muscle memory."
Blum said it is a "blessing" to coach Oliver. "At the end of the day, my body of work isn't going to be judged on what Ed does," Blum said. "It's going to be judged by what the rest of (the defensive) room does. It's a great challenge to me. And it's a great challenge to the other guys to play at his level."
This article is written by Stephen Tsai from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.