Detroit Lions’ sixth-round pick James Houston loves to play linebacker. He’d done it for a long time and was good enough in high school to earn a scholarship to play at the University of Florida.
“It’s like poetry when I’m inside,” Houston said in a Jackson State football documentary. “When I’m reading blocks and getting through traffic, and finding the ball carrier, and getting to my goal. It’s something special to me. I feel it in my soul, in my football spirit.”
But after four years at Florida, three as a contributor, Houston had never started a game. So after graduation, he transferred to Jackson State to play for NFL Hall-of-Famer coach Deion Sanders.
“Obviously, having Deion there was just a huge factor in me going there,” Houston to the Detroit media after being drafted by the Lions. “Obviously, it being an HBCU, that also drew me there as well. My whole family, we come from HBCUs. Everybody from my immediate to my extended family has really been going to HBCUs. So, it was something I wanted to experience and it just kind of felt like the right time. I know me and Coach Prime, we kind of had the same aspirations and same motivation to kind of kick this thing off, and I can’t be more excited that I’m his first prospect (to play) in the NFL and the first prospect in the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference).”
While things ended positively with Houston drafted into the league, this wasn’t exactly the original path that was planned.
With two established starters at linebacker, it didn’t take long before Sanders and the JSU coaching staff knew Houston wouldn’t start inside. But he was such a talented athlete that they wanted to find a way to get him on the field and settled on switching him to defensive end.
Houston was resistant. After all, he loves to play linebacker and he believed he had the talent to make it to the NFL at the position. He approached Sanders about the position switch and let him know he believed he had what it takes to play at linebacker.
In a YouTube documentary series chronicling Jackson State’s 2021 season, called “Coach Prime”, Houston’s conversation with Sanders and his position coach was captured in Episode 3 of the series.
In this meeting, all three men spoke with passion about their stance but they never raised their voices, used active listening, and provided a terrific example of how coaches and players (or really, people in general) can have constructive conversations with maturity and respect.
The conversation begins with Houston stating his case.
“I know the talent that I have,” Houston explained. “And y’all have put a cap on my talent, here. I know exactly what I can do.”
Sanders didn’t mince words.
“James, let me tell you something,” Sanders countered. “If you were able to do that, you would have done that, and you would have never came here (to JSU). If you was that dude, that you think you are at linebacker, you would have never been here.”
Sanders would go on to explain the situation further, saying he would never have gotten the reps at linebacker at JSU, and would have been their third option at best. But Sanders also pointed out what a talented player Houston was and that they wanted him to be able to reach his full potential, and that meant sticking it out on the edge, where coaches could help him excel.
“I feel that,” Houston acknowledged. “But I feel like I want to do more. I want to play inside, I want to help inside, I want to help outside. If I could go on offense, to help the offense, I’d play fullback and help y’all run the ball.”
“You don’t want to do that,” Sanders joked.
“I promise you,” Houston insisted, “I will crack somebody on the defense.”
And therein lies the competitive nature of Houston, and in the end, his desire to help the team took precedence over his own preferences.
Houston would stay at edge rusher the remainder of the season, logging 597 snaps on the edge versus just 31 at off-the-ball linebacker. But it’s hard to argue against the decision when you see the final results.
Houston would finish the season with 16.5 sacks (second-most in FBS and FCS combined), 24.5 tackles for loss (third-most in FBS and FCS combined), seven forced fumbles (led both FBS and FCS), as well as an overall defensive grade of 95.8 and pass-rushing grade of 95.4 from PFF (which both led both FBS and FCS)—beating out his new teammate, and second overall pick, Aidan Hutchinson, who finished second in both PFF categories.
Houston apparently took Sanders’ words to heart, and his passion is still ever-present, as evidenced by him echoing his desire to play multiple roles with the Lions and help out wherever he can.
“I view myself as a football player,” Houston told the Detroit media. “I feel like I can play a variety of positions. I know I can play off the ball, I can play on the ball. I haven’t had too many looks at it, but I know I can go back there and play fullback. Really, whatever the team needs, that’s really my thing. Whatever the team needs, I’ll be happy to do whatever it takes to make the team and progress the team and make us better.”
To watch the interaction between Houston and Sanders, check out the video below, which we have cued up to 18:41 when the four-minute segment on Houston begins: