Back in the summer, former Georgia All-American defensive end David Pollack was making the case that the Bulldogs’ declining defense was not devoid of talent and brought up one name in particular.
“Justin Houston is a baller,” Pollack said. “He’ll be a first-round draft pick.”
Georgia hasn’t produced a first-round pick on defense since safety Thomas Davis and Pollack went with the 14th and 17th overall picks, respectively, in 2005.
Houston has a chance to be next.
He leads the Southeastern Conference with 81/2 sacks, putting him 51/2 away from Pollack’s single-season record, a mark Houston admits would be cool to reach.
“It would be, but as I’ve been saying all along, I’m not worried about my stats or my individual goals,” Houston said. “I don’t have any. I just want to win.”
The redshirt junior outside linebacker has 51/2 sacks in his last four games and was named the SEC defensive player of the week after ringing up two sacks, five tackles and getting a fumble recovery at Kentucky.
“I know on Saturday he came to the bench after his second sack and I was like, ‘I’m glad he’s on my team,’ ” said offensive tackle Josh Davis, who tries to block Houston in practice.
“As the season is getting along, I can tell I’m getting better,” said Houston, who ranks second in the SEC with 14 tackles for loss. “I’m just still working. I’ve still got a long way to go to get where I want to be. There are still some things I want to work on, little things, but things are starting to come along.”
Others are noticing.
This week, NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Houston 17th in his list of the top 25 NFL prospects on ESPN.com.
“I love his size, skills and the kind of development he’s shown,” wrote Kiper, who has Houston as his top 3-4 outside linebacker for 2012.
Houston, gearing up for Saturday’s game against Florida in Jacksonville, says he is trying to focus on the present and not a future professional career.
“I try my hardest not to think about that at all,” he said. “I just want to take it a game at a time and just focus on this season. When the time gets here, I’ll think about it then, but right now, I want to focus on this season.”
Florida was Houston’s second choice out of Statesboro High School.
He said both coach Urban Meyer and then-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong came to the school to see him. He was intrigued by Florida, which offered him a scholarship, because a player he looked up to from Statesboro, defensive end Jeremy Mincey, went there.
“I used to want to be like him, follow him, but I’m here now,” he said
Meyer and the Gators will have to contend with Houston coming off the edge.
“Speed, athleticism and he gets there,” Meyer said. “Georgia’s had some unbelievable defensive ends over the years and he’s right in that category.”
Houston, who has 181/2 career sacks, gets there because he says he focuses a lot on his “get-off,” something he says former Georgia assistant Jon Fabris taught him makes a great pass-rusher.
“He’s out there working an extra 15 minutes on his get-off,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “He takes pride in that. Guys are starting to follow him. They’re saying, ‘Look what Justin’s doing. I want to do that.’ They’re staying out there extra doing it as well.”
Houston has thrived as an outside linebacker in first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme, but he estimates he’s lined up with his hand on the ground like a defensive end about 50 percent of the time when the defense is in the nickel package.
“Pass rush is about being relentless because sometimes you might get blocked, but if you keep coming and a guy holds the ball, you’ve got a chance to get there,” Grantham said. “I’ve been very pleased with his progress as a linebacker in general and because of his effort and resiliency, he’s been able to make some plays for us that have been big down the stretch the last few weeks.”
Nose guard DeAngelo Tyson has known Houston since their days at Statesboro, where they played both football and basketball together.
“He takes coaching very well and he wants to get better,” Tyson said. “If he keeps that attitude, he’s going to be one of the best pass rushers ever to come out of Georgia whenever he decides whether or not to go to the NFL.”