ATHENS, Ga. -- Justin Houston finally made it official Saturday, after keeping Georgia fans hanging until the final day to declare: The linebacker is entering the NFL draft.
In a written statement released by Georgia, the junior from Statesboro thanked the school and head coach Mark Richt, without whom, Houston said, “I would not be where I am today.”
“It was a very hard decision to make, but, in the end, I had to do what’s best for my family and me,” Houston said. “Thanks to all of the fans who were behind us the whole time I was in Athens.”
Richt suggested several times during the past few months that Houston could improve his stock by returning for his senior year. He is projected to be drafted between the mid-first round and second round.
“Justin is a great person and great player, and we’ll miss him,” Richt said in the statement. “He’s been an integral part of our team the past three years. We wish him nothing but the best as he moves into this next phase of his football career, and I’m certain he’ll be successful.”
The news means Georgia lost two players early to the NFL draft: Star wide receiver A.J. Green declared last Sunday and is expected to be one of the top picks in the draft.
As for Houston, his status is a bit more unknown. Listed at 6-foot-3, 258 pounds, he could play outside linebacker or defensive end in the NFL. He likely will be eyed by teams that run a 3-4 defense, because he flourished in that system in 2010 at Georgia.
Georgia now will be without its two top playmakers from a defense that finished the season ranked fourth in the SEC in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. Inside linebacker Akeem Dent, who led the team in tackles, is a senior.
The Bulldogs also lost outside linebacker Darryl Gamble, who started eight games. Inside linebacker Marcus Dowtin, who was fourth on the team in tackles, has been given his release to transfer.
Those four linebackers started a total of 36 games this year, accumulating 289 tackles, 14 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss.
The team returns only two linebackers who got significant playing time: Christian Robinson (46 tackles, two sacks in 11 starts) and Cornelius Washington (24 tackles and one sack in eight starts.) But two players who sat out this year got good reviews in practice: Jarvis Jones, a former Carver High standout who transferred from Southern California, and Richard Samuel, a converted running back. Both will be eligible in 2011.
Houston finished the regular season as the SEC’s leader in sacks, with 10. He was a first-team All-SEC pick by the Associated Press and the coaches and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski and Butkus awards.
The Statesboro (Ga.) High graduate finishes his career with 20 sacks and 38 tackles for a loss. He also had one interception -- on his final play at Sanford Stadium, sealing Georgia’s 42-34 win over Georgia Tech.