ATHENS – On Georgia coach Mark Richt’s radio call-in show this week, voice-of-the-Dogs Scott Howard asked: “Is there a better pass rusher than Justin Houston in the SEC right now?”
“Well, he’s pretty good,” replied Richt, who added with a laugh: “But I think he would probably need another year after this to really get great.”
“Sure he would, yes,” Howard said.
Houston is a junior, but – all kidding aside – his rising NFL draft stock suggests this might be his final season at UGA.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., the dean of NFL draft analysts, this week ranks Houston as the 17th best prospect for the 2011 draft. Kiper writes on ESPN.com’s Insider section that he tends “to avoid adding juniors and draft-eligible sophomores to the Big Board too early . . . as you don’t want to over-influence guys regarding their status.” But Kiper makes an exception in Houston’s case. “I love his size, skills and the kind of development he’s shown,” Kiper writes about the Georgia outside linebacker.
Houston was asked after practice Wednesday night if he’s thinking about leaving early for the NFL.
“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 focus on this season. When the time gets here, I’ll think about it then. But right now I just want to focus on the season.”
(An issue that will loom over the draft decisions of Houston and other eligible underclassmen: the widespread sentiment that the NFL is headed toward a labor war that could result in a lockout next season.)
For now, Houston wants to continue building on the superb season he’s having. The SEC’s sack leader with 8.5, he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Kentucky last Saturday. He was credited with two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one pass breakup and seven “quarterback hurries” in the game.
“He’s doing great,” Richt said. “He’s really focused. He’s in tremendous condition. He stays after practice to work on his fundamentals. He’s had a couple of things he’s had to get some treatment for – nothing big – but he’s very diligent in making sure his body is as fine-tuned as it can be for Saturdays.”
By the way, Kiper has another Georgia junior, wide receiver A.J. Green, ranked No. 2 on his draft board this week.