James Houston IV, the former 6th-round draft pick from Jackson State, has a unique story characterized by tenacity. Catching up with the 2nd-year edge on the Ermanni and Edwards Show w/ Maz, the audacity of the Detroit Lions’ young star was as apparent as ever. His journey from an overlooked college athlete to a promising NFL prospect is an illustration of his relentless determination.
My football career has been all over the place… I’m just that guy that’s not going to give up… if you give me my chance, I’m going to do everything I can with it.
From Linebacker to Defensive End: Houston’s Evolution on the Field
Undoubtedly, transforming from a linebacker at Florida to a defensive end at Jackson State to being drafted in the 6th round by the Lions wasn’t a linear path. But the transition, Houston explained, was facilitated by a supportive coaching staff who recognized his potential.
(The Jackson State coaching staff) really worked with me… they believed in me and saw I had this certain ability… they didn’t let even myself deter that… I’ve been a linebacker all my life, I wanted to play linebacker, they allowed me to focus on this one position because they saw the ability that I had and they worked with me everyday… we learned a lot from each other.
Houston’s ability to get so low, to dip, dodge and bend around massive offensive linemen is a major component of his ever-expanding “bag.” He attributes this skill in part to his natural athleticism, length and the inspiration of NFL greats, stating:
That’s just always something that I naturally used. I was never the tallest guy on the field, but I always was long. I had long arms, so I like to keep people at distance so that dip helps me keep people at distance… Von Miller is one of that uses that dip very, very well.
Seizing Opportunity: Houston’s Step from Practice Squad to Proving Ground
A pivotal moment in Houston’s journey came when he was summoned from the practice squad to the Thanksgiving game against the Buffalo Bills. Recalling that crucial moment, Houston shared his mindset during his time on the practice squad and the resolve he mustered upon hearing he’d be suiting up for the Bills game.
My mindset when I was on the practice squad was to get better for the next year… let’s lock in a little bit more so if you ever get your chance if anything ever happens you’re ready to go… Once coach told me (I was suiting up for the game against the Bills)… I was like bro, ‘I’m not going back to the practice squad…’ like I gotta make sure, I just gotta show em something so I don’t go back.
Indeed, Houston did more than just “show them something.” His performance in the Bills game was nothing short of astounding. He stormed out on the field and racked up two sacks in five plays, emphatically making his case for a permanent place in the team. His play affirmed what he’d always known about himself: “I always knew I had the ability, but sometimes you just got to be put in that right situation.”
The practice squad was not a setback, but a springboard that prepared him for the moment he was thrown into the spotlight. And when that moment came, Houston embraced it fully, proving himself not just as an adequate substitute, but as an indispensable asset to the Lions future.
A Rising Star for the Detroit Lions
One can’t help but share in the excitement for what the future holds for James Houston. After bursting onto the scene last year and now with the benefit of experience, it’s hard not to envision Houston carving out an expanded role in the Lions defensive plans.
Looking ahead to the 2023 season, the sack superstar has his eyes set on doubling up his sack total. In his words:
Being as you know my role is majority pass rush and getting sacks… I just want to expand on that. Anything else they give me I’ll be super happy, super blessed and fortunate to have but, you know, what I did was extraordinary, I set NFL records, so I honestly just want to continue to build on that. I want to double up my sack total. If I could get that this year that would be my dream.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes echoed this sentiment to detroitlions.com senior writer, Tim Twentyman, stating:
I think it’s not out of the realm to say that he has starter-level traits and abilities… I think he’s got the ability to be as good as he wants to be, and I’ve got a lot of faith in that because I know how he wants to work.
Setting Records and Gunning for More
In his debut NFL season, Houston demonstrated his prowess by notching 8.0 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Despite only playing seven games in 2022, Houston’s eight sacks managed to rank second among Lions’ defenders.
His outstanding performance has gained the recognition of Pro Football Focus, which named him as Detroit’s breakout player candidate for 2023. Sam Monson of PFF further endorsed Houston as a significant threat for opponents in his list of second-year breakout candidates:
It feels easy to say Houston already broke out as a rookie after ending the season with eight sacks, but those sacks came on just 140 snaps of play and 92 rushes. Obviously, that rate of production is unlikely to continue on a much greater workload, but it does create real excitement for what he can achieve across more snaps. He finished with 17 total pressures on those 92 rushes, itself an outstanding pressure rate, and the Lions have an opening for a secondary threat opposite Aidan Hutchinson.
Learning From Deion Sanders and Dan Campbell
Every great athlete has mentors who have helped shape their careers. For James Houston, his college coach, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, and his current NFL coach Dan Campbell, have helped develop him as a professional on and off the field. In reflecting on their influence, Houston has found commonalities in their approach, stating:
Everybody thinks that they’re so different and they’re not. They’re different as in their personality, but in the way that they approach the game and the way they approach football and coaching, it’s not different at all… Practice, games, workouts, anything. Any type of competition they’re up for and they’re on your back. They’ve been through it. They’re players’ coaches and they’re going to support you and lead you in the right direction… I feel like there’s a lot of power in former-player coaches… they just have that certain connection to the guys.
The Team: New Hopes, New Challenges
As the Detroit Lions prepare for the upcoming season, there is a renewed sense of hope and anticipation. The team has made several strategic acquisitions in the offseason, increasing expectations for a playoff-bound 2023 season. They will be opening their season against the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Kansas City Chiefs. A game that Houston believes his teammates will relish in.
Everybody will be watching… everybody is just excited to see where we are as a team, where we are as individual players as well, I feel like we’re all just going to be almost like blood in the water, sharks smelling that blood… that’s just the type of team we are, always out to prove ourselves. Never going to back down. Always just very accepting of the challenge.
With a talented roster, dedicated coaches, and the relentless pursuit of greatness from players like James Houston, the Detroit Lions are poised to excel next season.
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Original Photo Credit: © Lon Horwedel – USA TODAY Sports