After Justin Houston got the news in April that he would be suspended the first two games of the season, his position coach, Jon Fabris, wondered how Houston would respond.
The sophomore defensive end told Fabris he planned to take his punishment like a man and move past it, but that wasn’t what the coach was hoping to hear.
“He told me I’ve got to do more than that,” Houston said. “He said I’ve got to work even harder than I was working, and that motivated me.”
In spring practice, Houston was Georgia’s lone healthy, experienced defensive end. Rather than rest on his laurels with a lack of competition, however, the sophomore had one of the most impressive months of practice of anyone on the team, drawing raves from his coaches and teammates.
Just a few weeks after the spring game, however, the news broke that Houston had violated team rules and earned a two-game suspension. It was heartbreaking news for Houston, but he vowed to stay focused and continue the progress he had made during the spring.
His offseason workouts were as impressive as the improvements he made during the spring. At the end of the summer, Houston was dominant in strength tests, leading all defensive ends with a 435-pound bench press, a 600-pound squat and a team-best 420-pound power clean.
“He worked his tail off this offseason, setting records in the weight room,” said linebacker Rennie Curran, who was Houston’s workout partner for much of the offseason. “He made a mistake, and he learned from it, and he’s just ready to go. He’s been doing great things in practice, and I’m ready to see that translate into the game.”
When fall practice opened, Houston was as enthusiastic as ever. He stayed late for extra conditioning. He came in during his off hours to work on fundamentals. His dedication never wavered.
“He’s very, very hungry right now,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He could not stand not being there. It was tough on him, but he handled it like you would hope a young man would. I’m proud of how he handled his discipline. Now he’s fired up. The guys are happy for him, I’m happy for him. I think Georgia people should be happy for him.”
If nothing else, Georgia’s fans are thrilled at the timing of Houston’s return.
Starting defensive end Rod Battle went down with a season-ending knee injury last week against South Carolina, adding to the long list of battered players at the position.
Houston will step in as the starter along with Demarcus Dobbs against Arkansas on Saturday, and Houston knows just how important a successful debut is to his team.
“Hopefully I can be the guy to get the pass rush and help the defensive ends get some rest,” Houston said. “Right now, we’re lacking at defensive end, so I’m hoping to help the team in many ways.”
Richt said some players respond quickly after returning from a suspension, while others lag behind, taking several games to recover.
While it’s impossible to predict how Houston will react, Richt said, his hard work since the suspension was announced is a good sign that he’ll adjust quickly.
“He was really starting to assert himself and get comfortable, and he began to really play like you want a defensive end to play,” Richt said. “He’s beginning to reach his potential, just seeing signs of him maybe taking his game to another level, so you hope that he can regain that form, but it’s hard to do right off the bat.”