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Monday, April 13, 2009

Houston, We Have Liftoff

Justin Houston swears he has never knocked on wood. He doesn't keep a rabbit's foot in his pocket, throw salt over his shoulder or cross the street to avoid a black cat.

For the past year, while every other scholarship defensive end on the roster has fallen victim to injury, Houston has just played football.

"The thought went through my head," Houston said. "But I was always taught to never think you're going to get hurt. If you go out there with the mind-set you're going to get hurt, that's what will happen."

The mind-set paid dividends this spring.

"Right now I'd have to say he's been the most productive guy," head coach Mark Richt said. "But we only have two."

Houston, who will begin his third season with the Bulldogs in 2009, got his first taste of action a year ago, but didn't exactly set the world on fire. He showed signs of improvement, however, by this spring, he was ready to take the next step.

Actually, check that. He was obligated to take the next step.

"I had no choice," Houston said. "I was the most experience defensive end as we had, so I had to take it as a challenge and step up to the plate."

Neland Ball, Rod Battle and Cornelius Washington entered the spring with injuries that kept them out of action. Within two weeks, Jeremy Longo and Demarcus Dobbs had joined them in the trainer's room. Only Houston and Kiante Tripp, who had moved from the offensive line in January, remained.

"I thought it was going to be rough, but I looked at it as a time to get better, and the more reps I got, the better I got," Houston said. "Every rep I got was a chance to do it my hardest, and I got better."

Reps haven't been hard to come by for Houston during the past year.

Since the start of fall practice last August, the injuries began building up. One after another, Georgia's pass rushers came up lame, and from preseason through the regular season until now, only Houston has avoided calamity.

"Justin is one of the few guys who was healthy all last fall, all during the year, and he didn't miss any practices during the spring," Richt said. "It's shown that he's gotten better. I think he's ready to really be productive for us. I'm not going to predict a bunch of sacks, but he's big and strong and athletic, and he's got those long arms and huge hands, and all those things are starting to come together."

While no one with the Bulldogs is chalking up all the injuries as a blessing in disguise, the unlikely stretch of bumps and bruises has given Houston exactly what he needed to put his immense skills to use. So when all those other players finally do make it back to the field -- and all are expected to be fully healthy by summer -- the pass rush that struggled so much a year ago could have a lot of fresh bodies and one big weapon in 2009.

"I think I learned a lot," Houston said. "There was a lot of little stuff, and hopefully I'll keep learning this spring and be ready to go in August."

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