ATHENS, Ga. — Steve Pennington is glad the question was asked. Four years later, he still is baffled. The football coach at Statesboro High School wonders why Justin Houston didn’t get much respect on the recruiting trail.
“Man, I could give you a boatload on that,” Pennington said.
The player leading the SEC in sacks this season, the player who was just named the conference’s defensive player of the week and is emerging as a force with a pro football future, was just a mid-level high school recruit.
He wasn’t even the most highly sought player on his defensive line at Statesboro. That was DeAngelo Tyson, who, like Houston, chose Georgia. Pennington remembers that another SEC school, South Carolina, took only a cursory glance at Houston when coaches came to recruit Tyson.
Some big schools did show more interest — such as Florida, the one Houston and the Bulldogs face Saturday. But in general, Georgia is happy this one fell through the cracks.
Houston, who has 8.5 sacks this season, has gotten to the quarterback in six of eight games this season. He is 5.5 sacks away from the single-season school record and more than halfway to David Pollack’s career record of 36 sacks.
Houston also has had 1.5 sacks taken away after the game this season, when coaches reviewed the video.
“As the season gets along, I can tell I’m getting better,” Houston said. “I’m just still working. I’ve still got a long ways to go to where I want to be. There are still some things I want to work on, little things. But things are starting to come along.”
That may be an understatement. The sacks are earning Houston the fame, but his all-around game has pleased coaches.
“In the run game, I’ve been pleased with his effort,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Because sometimes, when you rush the passer, you can get fatigued. If you’re not the right kind of guy, you might take a down off here and there. But he really works hard to play the right way all the time. I think that’s important, and he’s been a major factor in improvement on defense.”
Florida head coach Urban Meyer, whose team is the next to try to stop Houston, was asked what makes Houston stand out.
“Speed and athleticism, and he gets there,” Meyer said. “Georgia’s had some unbelievable defensive ends over the years, and he’s right up there with them. I don’t know enough about all of them to rank them. He’s obviously if not the best in the SEC, one of the best.”
That’s high praise for someone Pennington said was “kind of under the radar” as a high school recruit.
Oh, Houston was rated, but his recruiting accolades, listed in the Georgia media guide, are tepid: He was the nation’s No. 21 weakside defensive end, according to Rivals.com; the No. 27 defensive end, according to ESPN.com; the 20th-best player in Georgia according to Scout.
“I’ve been in it now for 31 years,”Pennington said. “This whole recruiting process has become a darned public relations gimmick. It would really, to me, be sad to see. There are hundreds of Justin Houstons, who may not make all the combines and get all the notoriety out there, who are just as good as anybody else who walks on a collegiate field.
“He may not have gotten the notoriety, the three-star, the four-star recognition. But those stars do not measure what’s inside a person’s heart. And it doesn’t measure their desire and the willingness to be the best that they can be.”
Some of the circumstances of his recruitment are murky. Pennington remembers Georgia Southern being one of Houston’s only other offers. Houston said Florida made an offer, and it was his second choice.
Whatever the case, Georgia head coach Mark Richt remembers that Houston and Tyson were easy to recruit. And Tyson said none of Houston’s success surprises him.
“I’ve seen his fight, his emotions towards the gameand his leadership that he showed in high school,” Tyson said. “I knew when he came to college, he was going to do the same thing.”