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5 Qs: Lions rookie EDGE James Houston ‘has an uncanny ability to take over a game’

Get to know the Detroit Lions newest outside linebacker, Jackson State’s James Houston.

James Houston... Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU University Communications/Jackson State University via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions really want to get to the quarterback in 2022. They drafted Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick and then doubled down at the position when they took Kentucky edge Josh Paschal in the second round.

Then, in the sixth round, they tripled down when they took Jackson State edge James Houston.

Houston getting drafted is a big deal. He’s the first Jackson State player to be drafted since 2008 (wide receiver Jaymar Johnson by the Vikings) and the first player coached by NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders to get drafted. He was also one of just four HBCU players drafted in 2022 and the first HBCU player the Lions have drafted since 2013 (Florida A&M linebacker Brandon Hepburn).

Houston definitely has the stat line to show why Detroit drafted him. He finished the 2021 season with 16.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss. He gets things done out there. Still, we wanted to know more about the Jackson State phenom, so we reached out to two guys who know it all when it comes to the Tigers. Cory Collins and Nuenzo Phillips host the Tiger Talk Podcast and gave us all the information we could possibly ask for. Here’s what they had to say:

Previous “5 questions” series installments:

What are your overall thoughts on Houston’s time at Jackson State?

“Houston’s time at Jackson State was remarkable, to say the least, and it exceeded the expectations of most fans. His productivity stood out both on film and on the stat sheet, but what was perhaps most impressive about his time at Jackson State was the fact that he didn’t even visit the school until June 2021, and his first game there was less than three months later, on September 5, and he dominated immediately, while playing a new position, edge rusher.

“In addition to learning a new position and new playbook in such a short amount of time, he also had to become familiar with a new coaching staff, new teammates, and a brand new environment.

“Also, he had spent his entire life in Florida. He grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, then spent four years in Gainesville at the University of Florida. The transition to Mississippi from Florida is a big adjustment in itself and is probably a culture shock for many.

“The impact that he made for the football program and the impression that he left on the fan base in the short amount of time (six months) that he was there is extremely impressive.”

What are his strengths?

“One thing that stands out about Houston is his speed. He has an extremely quick ‘get-off’ or first few steps, which gives him a big advantage working on the outside.

“Another strength, and where he can add really add value to a team, is his versatility. He arrived at Jackson State as a linebacker after spending four years at the University of Florida at that position, and he transitioned seamlessly into a dominant edge rusher in a matter of weeks.

“This transition didn’t come without resistance, however. Coach Prime and the coaching staff noticed his natural ability to rush the quarterback early on in practice and presented the position change to him, but he initially did not agree. They explained that there would be a challenge for him to get extended playing time at linebacker, as Jackson State had two all-conference linebackers returning.

“To his credit, he ultimately bought in and trusted the coaching staff, stating that he was a team player who would even line up at fullback if needed. He’s a team player, fast learner with a great student mentality, and is extremely coachable.

“Furthermore, his football instincts are exceptional. He has a genuine knack for getting to the football, which made his transition to edge rusher so natural. He also has an uncanny ability to take over a game and make a game-defining play when needed. Although he has a tremendous motor for all four quarters, he seemingly can “hit a switch” and take it to an even higher level when the game is in question.”

What are his weaknesses?

“For those who put a lot of stock into measurables, his size may be a question mark or even considered a weakness. As a ‘tweener’, it could work against him versus bigger guards if they’re able to put their hands on him. He may have trouble on stunts going inside.”

Houston is part of a small group of HBCU players that got drafted this year. Do you see that number growing even more as more light gets shined on these schools? Can Houston be good enough to spark that larger progression?

“Houston getting drafted was hugely significant for the prospect of highly-touted recruits choosing an HBCU on a regular basis. It’s very rare to see a player dominate a conference in the manner that James Houston did in the SWAC, so had he gone undrafted after a season like he just had, it rightfully begs the question of how realistic is it for someone to get drafted from an HBCU if James Houston couldn’t. His selection by the Lions shows recruits who are considering an HBCU, and even those who hadn’t seriously considered it, that it is indeed realistic.

“The reason why HBCU players haven’t consistently gotten drafted is because HBCUs haven’t consistently been able to recruit players with true NFL talent or potential. So Houston’s selection not only gives top-tier recruits the confidence that they can go pro from an HBCU, it also gives HBCU coaches the confidence to go after those recruits because they have a real, recent precedent to refer to that there is a pathway to the NFL from an HBCU. For the most part, HBCU coaches largely haven’t even attempted to go after these types of recruits.”

Can Houston be an impact player in the NFL?

“Yes. He is a disruptive force with great tackling ability and the propensity to create turnovers. He had two defensive touchdowns from turnovers that he created himself this past season. Both plays were very meaningful. The first one set the tone on the opening drive of one of the biggest conference games of this season, which put Jackson State in the driver’s seat for the division championship. The second play broke open the SWAC championship game.

“His versatility is an asset that may position him with the unique ability to contribute on a lot of snaps, thus increasing the impact that he can have for the Lions. He is valuable on all three downs, and even on special teams.

“For those who question his level of competition at Jackson State, he also produced at the highest level of college football in the SEC at Florida. He had 8 tackles in the 2020 SEC Championship Game”