Up Next

HBCU Football

James Houston IV keeps expectations about NFL draft in check

The Tigers linebacker said he will be ‘happy for any opportunity’ he’s given

Jackson State linebacker James Houston IV, who had 16.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss last season, has zero expectations for the NFL draft, which begins Thursday.

If his name gets called in the fourth round, fine. The fifth or sixth? That’s good too.

The seventh? No problem.

Even if his name never gets called and he signs as a priority free agent, Houston will be thrilled for the opportunity.

No cap, as the youngsters say these days.

“I have not put any expectations in the air. I’m going to be happy for any opportunity that I’m given,” Houston said. “I don’t want to be jaded. I don’t want to be mad if I don’t go where I thought I should go.

“If I go where I think I should go, when I talk about it, it’s going to be in the first round.”

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders hopes Houston will be the first of many JSU players to get drafted over the next few years.

The NFL didn’t draft a single player from a historically Black college and university (HBCU) last season.

“It’s not just about our players getting drafted,” Sanders said. “FAMU is definitely gonna have guys drafted. Southern is gonna have guys drafted. South Carolina State as well, just to name a few that I know should go off the board early.

“We’re happy and thankful. We want 10 [HBCU players] drafted and next year we want 15-17. Then we get to 20. That’s when it’s gonna go crazy. That’s the goal — just consistent, consistent progress.”

Houston played three seasons at Florida before transferring to Jackson State after totaling 100 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as an inside linebacker.

Sanders and his coaching staff moved Houston to defensive end before the season because they believed Houston has a natural bend coming off the edge, which means tackles don’t get much of his body to block. His hand technique is also good for an inexperienced pass-rusher.

“I wouldn’t say I was excited,” Houston said of the move. “It was a challenge and an opportunity to get on the field and do something.”

Sanders said Houston has the talent to play in the NFL. Now, he just needs to take advantage of the opportunity that’s about to present itself.

“James is a good player,” Sanders said. “He can rush the passer, and if he stays on the edge he has a chance to be a good player.”

Houston sees himself as a player capable of excelling at both spots.

NFL scouts see him more as an edge player because he goes forward better than he goes backward, which linebackers must do.

Besides, finding pass-rushers is hard; finding inside linebackers isn’t as challenging.

Houston’s pedigree showed at JSU, where he finished second in the nation in sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss last season.

Houston also had a knack for making game-changing plays at winning time.

“It’s understanding the moment and the situation,” Houston said. “That’s something I did a lot. We need a turnover. We need a stop on third down. It’s time for me to make a play.”

Any criticisms of Houston don’t really have to do with his on-field performance.

It’s more about his measurables. He’s 6-foot-1, 240 pounds and ran a 4.63 in the 40-yard dash at JSU’s pro day. NFL defensive ends are typically between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5, and 260-290 pounds.

Still, Houston had a 39-inch vertical leap and he has 34-inch arms, which are ideal.

Given the success of NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, who shifted between inside linebacker and defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, scouts are studying undersized players like Houston to see if they can be difference-makers.

He has visited Dallas, Miami and Kansas City.

“He should get drafted,” said JSU defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, who played nine seasons in the NFL and spent 17 years as an assistant coach, including four as a coordinator.

“He can rush the passer, he makes big plays — game-changing plays — and he was productive,” Thurman said. “What else do you want him to do?

“Look at the tape. He made plays we didn’t coach and he usually made them at big moments.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.