'Things you can't coach': Why Oklahoma State defensive end Collin Oliver won't hit the freshman wall

Scott Wright

STILLWATER — This is about the time of year when the dreaded “freshman wall” starts coming into play for rookies across the college football landscape.

For No. 11-ranked Oklahoma State, defensive end Collin Oliver is the only true freshman playing significant snaps this season, and he has been highly effective. The Edmond Santa Fe product has 4.5 quarterback sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss — both of which lead the team.

Is Oliver in danger of hitting the freshman wall, and seeing a drop in his production?

OSU coach Mike Gundy isn't concerned as the Cowboys prepare for the ninth game of the season, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against West Virginia in Morgantown.

“Usually it happens about November, but ... I think he’s fine,” Gundy said. “The reason why is, we have so many defensive linemen, he’s not having to play 50 plays a game. He’s 28-32 a game. 

“You add 15 plays more over a seven-game stretch, you’re almost to 100 plays. So that’s what’s helping him. He’s not in as much as some of these other freshmen.”

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Oklahoma State's Collin Oliver (30) pressures Baylor's Gerry Bohanon (11) in the fourth quarter of a 24-14 win on Oct. 2 in Stillwater.

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Gundy pointed to Trace Ford two years ago, playing the same edge rusher position as Oliver. Ford had earned the starting job by midseason and was playing the majority of snaps for much of the year. Late in the season, Ford was grinding to be as productive as he was earlier in the year. 

With Oliver this season, Brock Martin is taking the majority of the first-team action, allowing Oliver to be used in specialized situations that fit his skillset, particularly as a pass rusher.

“He’s freakishly athletic,” Gundy said. “He’s got a very strong, flexible lower body. He can bend. He can turn the corner and he can drop his knees, his hips and bend and get under blocks, then he’s powerful enough to come back the other way. He just has a special athleticism that allows him to be a good football player and a good pass rusher.”

Martin has seen Oliver’s unique skills up close, saying in August that he expects Oliver to be an All-American before his OSU career is over. And Martin sees no issue with the freshman wall.

“That’s on him to be mentally tough enough to get through it, but he is,” said Martin, a fifth-year senior. “He’s tough, he’s strong, he’s everything you’d ever want in a football player. I don’t think he’ll ever even touch that wall.”

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Oliver got an early start on college, enrolling in January and joining the Cowboys for spring practice. With Martin, Ford and Tyren Irby all sidelined because of injuries for the spring, Oliver got lots of extra practice time that he wouldn’t have otherwise benefited from.

“We noticed Collin when he was with us and he should’ve been at the senior prom,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’s a guy that just jumps right off the screen when you’re watching video. The quickness, the natural skills of being a great athlete. And he’s got football sense. He can see the play developing and he can react to all the different formations and things that come out. He’s got some things you can’t coach.”

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Oliver is smaller than most players at his position, but his strength makes up for it. And Gundy — who said in August that he expected Oliver to play a role on the defense this season — doesn’t envision size being an issue much longer.

“I can’t imagine what it’ll be like,” Gundy said. “He’s liable to be 20 pounds bigger and stronger next year at this time.

“He’s further along than I would have thought. I said there’d be a role. I was thinking 8-10 plays a game, because he’s shown that pass rush ability in practice, but I would not have thought he could get to where he is now at his position as a true freshman.”

OSU at West Virginia

KICKOFF: 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va. (ESPN)