Colorado State, having had its opening drive end in a three-and-out, was back to punt, with punter Ryan Stonehouse backed up deep inside the 15-yard line.
With a chance to seize some early momentum, Florida called for the punt return unit to apply some pressure and run a play they’d incorporated in the offseason.
Redshirt freshman James Houston IV got to Stonehouse before he had a chance to send the ball flying, and Houston made the forceful tackle, causing a fumble which teammate Josh Hammond recovered on Colorado State’s 11-yard line.
“He was kind of playing around with it, I wasn’t really sure whether to block him or tackle him. I just ended up tackling him,” Houston said. “It’s a blitz, bonsai blitz, so I knew the whole (week of) practice somebody was going to come free. It happened to be me, and when I saw my chance I definitely took it.”
It’s a chance Houston has dreamed about of since July 13, 2016.
Prior to his senior season at American Heritage, Houston suffered an ACL injury and needed surgery. He committed to the Gators just nine days later, perhaps realizing his stock on the recruiting trail would fall following a reveal of his ailment. After his recovery, Houston was one of nine players suspended for the 2017 season due to the credit card fraud scandal. The time away from the game brought about some much-needed maturity while reminding Houston of his love for the game.
“I haven’t played in about two years so really this first year I expected just to get on the field and play a little bit, get my feet wet. Kind of seeing where the team is at, seeing where I’m at. I would like to play more. I feel like I can, I feel like I can help the team,” Houston said. “It’s just football, I’m back in football. I love it, it’s the sport I love to play.”
With the Gators now preparing for the first road test of the season against Tennessee, Houston believes the linebacker unit will continue improving once junior linebacker David Reese returns from the ankle injury that has sidelined him late in preseason camp. Houston said no one has replaced Reese’s leadership during his absence, and Reese’s return will help the defense with their assignments on the field.
“He’s the core of the defense. When we missed him, it was like a piece of us kind of left, so having him back is definitely going to be a big, big plus,” Houston said. “Just him being around kind of eases everyone around you, it helps everybody just play a little more looser and just faster.”
With a vital contributor at his position returning to the field in the near future, the key for Houston will be to continue finding ways that make him stand out on the field like he did Saturday against Colorado State. That will require staying on the field — and on Mullen’s good side. If Mullen’s reaction Saturday was any indication, the best way to do that might be for Houston to continue making game-changing plays.
“Oh yeah, Coach Mullen, he’s an exciting guy,” Houston said. “He’s going to get with you, if you make a big play he’s definitely going to come and celebrate with you.”