Houston went to high school at powerhouse American Heritage in Florida and was coached by former Dolphins All-Pro corner Patrick Surtain (Sr.)_. Houston spent the first four years of his college career at the University of Florida, where he was a three-year contributor (zero starts) as an off-the-ball linebacker and special teamer.
Frustrated with a reduced role, Houston graduated from Florida and transferred to Jackson State, to play for another NFL All-Pro corner Deion Sanders. Hoping to stay at linebacker, Houston was a bit hesitant when Sanders approached Houston about switching to an edge rusher role but he accepted his coach's challenge and did what was best for the team.
Things could not have worked out better for Houston and JSU.
Houston thrived in an edge role and was utilized all over the defensive formation. He manned the edge while standing up and with his hand in the dirt, playing both sides comfortably. He did see a handful of snaps at off-the-ball linebacker, but it was hard to take him off the edge when he was producing ridiculous numbers.
Just last season, Houston registered 70 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 75 pressures (per PFF), seven forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown), and one interception, also returned for a touchdown. He was a problem for offenses.
“So, my nickname’s ‘Da Problem’”, Houston told the Lions media after being selected by Detroit. “Back at Jackson State, some of the announcers, they just kind of came up with it. I was kind of wreaking havoc throughout my fourth game – I think I had about 10-to-11 sacks on the season, and they came up with ‘Da Problem.’ You know, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’”
Houston’s athletic profile is a bit of a mixed bag. His lack of height (6-foot-0 1⁄4) could be a potential obstacle for an edge defender in the NFL, but his arm length (34 1⁄4-inch arm length) is elite. His lateral quickness scores are low, but his explosion scores are elite. Long speed is average, but his 10 and 20 split times are elite and that shows up on film.
Athletically, he is very much a tweener, which makes projecting his role in the NFL a challenging task. But when you watch him play, you can see clear NFL skills.
The first thing you notice is his ability to explode off the line of scrimmage. He displays solid burst at the snap, and his twitchy footwork makes him a difficult target to block. He uses his height to his advantage when taking on offensive tackles, keeping his pad level low and dipping under blocks. His length also comes into play here, as he will use his arms to strike first and also leverage under the block. But like most undersized players, when he gets caught by a bigger-bodied lineman, it can be an issue.
Despite only learning the pass rusher position less than a year ago, he has multiple moves in his toolbelt and can string them together better than you’d expect. He also sets up and executes a pass rush plan—again, advanced for such little experience—and will often follow up a successful trip around the arc, with an inside move to cross the face of the lineman and collapse the pocket.
Houston plays fast, but he also possesses an extra gear that sets him apart. If he sniffs out a misdirection, or when the ball carrier hesitates, he immediately recognizes and closes at a ridiculous pace.
#Lions James Houston has a unique ability to quickly process what's in front of him and close with a second gear that is drool-worthy.— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) May 7, 2022
Watch him read his first key (RB) recognize the QB still has the ball, react before the pulling guard can get to him, and attack with violence. pic.twitter.com/9eDFh0iIlX
Houston tackles with efficiency, driving through the ball carrier. This shows up at several spots on the field (including the clip above), but when he is attacking forward, he is violent.
His hands and feet are always moving, and he never quits on a play, always working to find ways to keep himself clean and free of blocks. When he recognizes that he has lost his pass-rushing rep, he will often disengage using his length and drop into passing lanes to try and disrupt the quarterback.
He wasn’t asked to do a lot of coverage at Jackson State, but at Florida, he did plenty of it. Florida would use him in zone from an off-the-ball position, and he showed the speed to carry the route into the secondary. They also used him in the slot, but he can get a bit handsy and lose himself in man coverage.
He also contributed on special team at both schools, even though he was dominating as a starter at Jackson State. His ability to contribute in all phases will be an important trait when roster decisions are being made.
“I’m going to sacrifice everything I need to sacrifice,” Houston told the Lions’ media. “Obviously, I’m going to play an important role in special teams, all four roles. I’m just going to come out there and I’m going to work my heart out. I’m not going to give up.”
Houston has a lot of appealing traits—and you have to love his mindset—but there are noticeable obstacles to overcome, and he doesn’t fit into any single box on the roster. As an edge, they’ll have to use him situationally due to his frame. As an off-the-ball linebacker, he lacks experience and doesn’t move with the same play speed, limiting his impactfulness.
This makes projecting him against any position group difficult, as it won’t be an apples-to-apples comparison. But Houston’s intangibles are what truly make him a unique player and his ability to live in multiple groups could benefit him significantly.
Despite not being a perfect prospect at any one position, his positional versatility should carry over to the NFL. He’s going to have issues with NFL tackles if he rushes with his hand in the dirt, but he can absolutely stand up, or push out to the wide-9 in order to give him some separation where he can use his length and quickness to his advantage.
Personally, I’d like to see him as a stand-up outside linebacker who primarily pass rushes with the occasional drop to keep offenses honest. For example, if the Lions run a 4-3 under formation, they can bring Houston on the field as an outside linebacker and use him just outside of the 5-tech at the line of scrimmage, thus stacking two pass rushers on that side of the formation. In that situation, Houston will more than likely be matched up with a tight end, rather than a tackle, which is an advantage for the Lions.
At the end of the day, Houston is a unique chess piece who is willing to follow his coach's lead, but how much or where he will be used is still very much up in the air. For a player in this situation, it starts with winning the mental battle, and Houston comes to Detroit with an encouraging approach.
“Really, whatever the team needs, that’s really my thing,” Houston concluded. “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.”