Detroit Lions sixth-round pick James Houston loves playing linebacker. He had been doing it for a long time and was good enough in high school to win 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 read blocks and go through traffic, find the ball carrier and reach my goal. It’s something special for me. I feel it in my soul, in my footballing spirit.
But after four years in Florida, three of them as a contributor, Houston had never started a game. So, after graduating, he transferred to Jackson State to play for NFL Hall of Fame coach Deion Sanders.
“Obviously having Deion there was just a huge factor for me to go,” Houston told Detroit media after being drafted by the Lions. “Obviously, being an HBCU, that drew me there as well. All of my family, we come from HBCUs. Everyone, from my immediate family to my extended family, really went to HBCUs. was something I wanted to experience and it was kind of the right time I know myself and Coach Prime, we kind of had the same aspirations and motivation to start this thing, and I can’t be more excited that I am his first prospect (to play) in the NFL and the first prospect in the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference).
Although things ended positively with Houston drafted into the league, it wasn’t exactly the route originally planned.
With two starters established at linebacker, it wasn’t long before Sanders and the JSU coaching staff knew Houston wouldn’t be starting on the inside. But he was such a talented athlete that they wanted to find a way to get him on the court and decided to move him to defensive end.
Houston was resilient. After all, he loves playing linebacker and he thought he had the talent to make it to the NFL at that position. He approached Sanders about the position change 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, titled “Coach Prime,” Houston’s conversation with Sanders and his post coach was captured in Episode 3 of the series.
In that meeting, the three men spoke passionately about their position, but they never raised their voices, used active listening and provided a great example of how coaches and players (or really , people in general) can have meaningful conversations with maturity and respect. .
The conversation begins with Houston stating her case.
“I know the talent I have,” Houston explained. “And you all 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 replied. “If you could have done this, you would have done it and you would never have come here (to JSU). If you were that guy, that you think you’re a linebacker, you never would have come here.
Sanders would further explain the situation, saying he would never have gotten the linebacker reps from JSU and would have been their third option at best. But Sanders also stressed how talented Houston was and that they wanted him to be able to reach his full potential, which meant staying on the edge where coaches could help him excel.
“I feel it,” Houston admitted. “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 the attack, to help the attack, I would play back and help you all run the ball.
“You don’t want to do that,” Sanders joked.
“I promise you,” Houston insisted, “I’m going to smash somebody on defense.”
And therein lies Houston’s competitive nature, and ultimately his desire to help the team took precedence over his own preferences.
Houston would stay on the edge at rusher the rest of the season, recording 597 snaps on the edge compared to just 31 at linebacker off the ball. But it’s hard to argue against the decision when you see the end results.
Houston would finish the season with 16.5 sacks (second in FBS and FCS combined), 24.5 tackles for loss (third in FBS and FCS combined), seven forced fumbles (led by both FBS and FCS), as well than a total defensive rating of 95.8 and passing rating of 95.4 from PFF (who both led both FBS and FCS) – beating 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 there, as evidenced by his desire to play multiple roles with the Lions and help wherever he can.
“I consider myself a football player,” Houston told Detroit media. “I feel like I can play in different positions. I know I can play with the ball, I can play with the ball. I haven’t watched it much, but I know I can go back and play at the back. Really, whatever the team needs, it’s really my thing. Whatever the team needs, I’ll be happy to do whatever it takes to move the team forward. team and make us better.
To watch the interaction between Houston and Sanders, watch the video below, which we posted up until 6:41 p.m. when the four-minute segment on Houston begins: