‘Calm his world down’: Lions coaches look to simplify role, maximize James Houston’s athleticism

Detroit News

Allen Park — Lions rookie James Houston isn’t your traditional player.

The Jackson State product is listed as an outside linebacker, but that doesn’t mean he’s been pigeonholed into that position. In fact, defensive line coach Todd Wash said during OTAs earlier this month that Houston has been working with his position group “a lot.”

“He’ll play SAM in base and then he plays the rush position in sub (packages),” Wash told reporters on June 13. “This whole week, he’ll be in my room, this whole week. We’re trying to calm his world down a little bit, with the mental side of things, and let him really show his athleticism that we saw at Jackson (State).”

Houston wasn’t invited to the NFL combine in the leadup to the draft, but he participated in Jackson State’s pro day and flashed that athleticism Wash is referencing.

The eventual 217th overall pick posted a 4.7 40-yard dash time, a vertical jump of 39 inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 5 inches, per HBCU Gameday.

Houston spent three seasons at Florida, where he piled up 100 tackles and 4½ sacks, before transferring to Jackson State in July 2021, where he had a career season. The 6-foot-1 defenseman logged 70 tackles, 16½ sacks, seven forced fumbles and an interception.

“He’s strong and physical,” Wash said. “We see a lot of lean and bend with his pass rush. But at this point in time, once again, you don’t see it down-in and down-out because he’s thinking.

“So, we’ve got to really calm his world down. When he knows what he’s doing, he’s a really good athlete, and we’ll be able to see that now, by limiting him a little bit. We had him at three positions (and) that was too much right away. So, we’ve calmed it down to two and you’re starting to see the athleticism that we drafted.”

Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard echoed Wash’s desire to simplify Houston’s role, even though his athleticism gives him the ability to be so versatile.

“James has done a great job, let me start by saying (that),” Sheppard said this month. “Because we’ve swung him a little bit. Some days you’ll see him in stack-backer, other days you’ll see him on the edge. So with James right now, we’re kind of in this dynamic (position) and letting the player speak to us…but kind of carving out a distinct role.

“Because being that young…his wires will start getting crossed, so that’s when it’s on us as coaches. (We have to simplify) his roles, kind of giving him an ideal role going into training camp, and we’ve kind of done that.”

Houston is one of two rookie linebackers on Detroit’s roster, with Oklahoma State’s Malcolm Rodriguez, who was drafted 188th overall, being the other. Sheppard had a glowing review of Rodriguez to end OTAs as well.

The defensive front-seven has clearly been a point of emphasis for the Lions. General manager Brad Holmes has spent plenty of capital to infuse talent into the group, with rookies like Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal, Rodriguez and Houston being teamed up with Charles Harris, Alim McNeill, Julian Okwara and Romeo Okwara, among others.

“You hope it’s a foundation for the future,” Wash said. “We’re spending that much money and that kind of stuff to draft these guys high in the draft. They need to be the foundation of our defense.

“That’s the way (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) wants it. We knew we had to upgrade there the last couple years, and Brad’s did it. But for the future, they better be the foundation of this team for many years to come.”

rsilva@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Rich_Silva18

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