With a smile on his face, linebacker John Houston Jr. stops to chat with reporters after a USC practice. He has a brighter outlook and is playing fast and loose, partly because he is playing without pain for the first time in his collegiate career.
Last season, Houston wasn’t himself. He couldn’t be. His back wouldn’t let him.
The former five-star linebacker dealt with a lingering back issue that stemmed from his time at Gardena (Calif.) Serra. He was already on the path to a redshirt season, but eventually, early in November, he had to be shut down for the remainder of the year to try to give his back an opportunity to heal.
“It was pretty difficult just dealing with the pain and just all the treatment I had to do,” Houston said. “It's pretty much the first time [being out for an extended period], so it was pretty hard for me, but I feel like I bounced back and I got a good mindset from that year, my redshirt year. Now I feel ready to go.”
Any injury brings about certain difficulties related to the pain and the inability to do certain activities, but with a back injury, a player can basically be rendered incapacitated in a sense that he/she is unable to do any sport-related activities. Houston didn’t have to undergo surgery, but he wasn’t able to do any football activities or weight lifting while rehabbing his back.
He worked on his core muscles to try to strengthen his lower back and he did a lot of stretching to maintain his flexibility. Houston also focused on becoming a visual learner. Watching practice from the sideline, he tried to prepare himself by mentally going through his position’s assignment on every play.
“I'm fully healthy now, so I'm just real excited, real happy that my back injury is to the side of me, to the back of me. I'm really excited to just come out this year fully healthy ready to get it.”
The offseason brought new challenges. A new defensive coordinator meant a new system to learn. Later, the new defensive coaching staff decided Houston would be best suited moving to the interior of Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme. While Houston’s athleticism enables him to roam sideline-to-sideline, Pendergast’s outside linebackers are frequently pass rushers off the edge.
Instead of having the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Houston going against massive tackles on the outside, they want to use his athleticism to shoot the gaps where he may be able to get more clear pathways to ballcarriers and quarterbacks.
“I feel comfortable. Every day I'm coming out and learning more and just filling all my gaps and doing my job,’ Houston said. “Learning a lot. Learning from Pendergast and everything. Getting the defense down.
“I just have to make sure that I set the tempo for the whole defense. Make sure everybody is together and just make sure we come out with a bang.”
Houston is in a unique position battle. He is playing WILL, but the inside linebacker spots are interchangeable to a degree, so he is battling with five other linebackers for two spots.
“It's a group that I think has an upside,” Pendergast said of the inside linebackers. “It's a new scheme for them. They're coming along. I'm excited about their progress and I think they'll only get better, the more we can get a good combination in there that can play together. I'm big on continuity.”
Two of the veterans, seniors Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell, had a slight advantage to begin with having played for Pendergast when he was the Trojans’ defensive coordinator in 2014. They had a base knowledge of how he operates and some of his terminology. But Pendergast said that edge is negligible at this point because the rest of the group is working just as hard.
Houston said the whole cast is learning from one another. When a mistake occurs, they fix it as a group.
“If somebody messes up, we make sure we correct them, make sure everybody is together on the same page and make sure everybody knows their job.”
After missing last season, Houston knows what his job is and is looking forward to showing it on Saturdays:
“Be fast, physical and always come to the ball.”
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