While I wish he had been selected in last night’s first round, I’m pleased just to be able to craft the foregoing sentence, in light of Houston’s most recent reason for making headlines. Since Tuesday, all of us in Bulldog Nation have been waiting to exhale for fear that Houston’s professional football career might have gone up in smoke. Now that his name has been called, however, it is time to praise the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker who flourished in Todd Grantham’s system and explain why Houston should have no problem at the next level.
As a redshirt freshman on a terrible defense that had me calling for heads to roll, Houston appeared in every game yet started only one, never making more than three tackles in a single outing. Following a two-game suspension to kick off the 2009 campaign, Houston started ten games for a terrible defense that caused heads to roll.
Out of that housecleaning came the hiring of Coach Grantham, and no man on the Georgia roster profited more handsomely from that switch in defensive coordinators and that shift in defensive schemes than Justin Houston. In the course of a 2010 season during which much went wrong for the Bulldogs, Houston frequently was in the right place at the right time, matching or surpassing his previous career bests in forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, pass breakups, and interceptions as a junior. In his final game as a collegian, he tied his career high with ten tackles in an otherwise forgettable Liberty Bowl.
That, though, is not the half of it. Check out Houston’s statistical improvement from his second to his third year wearing silver britches:
(G/GS = Games/Games Started; ST = Solo Tackles; A = Assists; TT = Total Tackles; S = Sacks; TFL = Tackles For Loss; QBP = Quarterback Pressures.)
That across-the-board upgrade earned him three All-America selections (Walter Camp, FWAA, and Pro Football Weekly) and status as a Bednarik Award semifinalist and a Butkus Award and Nagurski Trophy finalist. It earned him All-SEC honors from sportswriters, coaches, and Phil Steele. It earned him team defensive MVP recognition and the CFPW National Linebacker Trophy. Now it has earned him a roster spot in the National Football League.
Despite our collective disappointment at Houston’s decision to forego his senior year of eligibility, it is possible that, in time, he will occupy a special spot in the hearts and minds of the Georgia faithful, as well. Should the 2011 football season sour and a coaching change be made, Mark Richt’s successor likely will bring in a new staff almost wholly his own, and the Bulldogs will be back to square one defensively.
Should the Red and Black prove successful this autumn, though, history will tell a different tale, one that will entrench the certitude of those who gather each Saturday in Sanford Stadium that you can’t spell "Grantham" without "GATA." Should that be the path the Bulldogs tread, we will look back on Justin Houston the way we look back at the motley crew Erk Russell molded first into a serviceable unit, then into a fearsome defense, in the course of turning the longsuffering losers of 1963 into the SEC champions of 1966.
If 2011 represents a great leap forward for the Georgia D, Justin Houston will be remembered as one of the earliest success stories of Todd Grantham’s tenure. In that spirit, we wish him well as he departs Athens for Kansas City, and we issue a much-needed warning to the quarterbacks of the AFC West: Justin Houston will begin the fall looking for you, but, before the end of the autumn, you will be looking for him.