HBCU Star Eager to Extend Family Roots by Joining Chiefs via Draft

James Houston

Jackson State Athletics Jackson State's James Houston

When James Houston IV met with the Kansas City Chiefs leading up to the 2022 NFL draft, it was a surreal moment for him.

Houston, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end from Jackson State University that’s attempting to make his way into the NFL, comes from a family that has roots in the Kansas City area. His father, James Houston III, played football at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City and was inducted into their Sports Hall of Fame in 2020 for his play on the football field. He was also a two-time All-American at Missouri State.

Houston IV, despite growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, would attend games at Arrowhead Stadium growing up. That made his visit with the Chiefs leading up to the draft special to him.

It was fun visiting the Chiefs,” Houston told Heavy. “That’s where half of my family is from, so getting to see them, getting to see the old Chiefs stadium that I used to go to [was a cool experience].”

Houston, nicknamed “The Problem”, visited the Chiefs the same week of the NFL owners meetings, which took place the last week of March. Head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach were in Palm Beach, Florida for the event, so Houston met with Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, linebackers coach and run game coordinator Brendan Daley, outside linebackers coach Ken Falojole, and assistant general manager Mike Borgonzi. Houston also got to connect with Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. during his time at Arrowhead Stadium.

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Kansas City was one of three visits Houston made leading up to the draft, the others being with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys. He even got to have dinner with Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith during his visit with Dallas thanks to a mutual friend.

Visits with NFL teams are just one of the many things Houston has been doing since the end of his collegiate career, though. Since the start of 2022, Houston has played in the East-West Shrine Game, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and has worked with former Atlanta Falcons linebacker/defensive end and pass-rush coach Chuck Smith as well as sports performance coach Chip Smith.

He also had his pro day at JSU, where he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash time, had 22 bench-press reps, 39-inch vertical and a 10-foot-6 broad jump.

But let’s get into the details of who James Houston IV the football player is, and why he’s a viable option for the Chiefs in the 2022 NFL draft.

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Houston Part of New Regime at Deion Sanders’ JSU

Houston was a three-star recruit out of high school and was able to commit to Florida despite not playing his entire senior season at American Heritage in Plantation, Florida due to a torn ACL. Houston spent four years total at Florida, playing in 35 games and accumulating 52 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 4.5 forced fumbles as a linebacker, per the school’s website.

Houston’s productivity on the football field wasn’t where he wanted it to be, however.

Ultimately I feel like it wasn’t the best fit for me, just that system,” Houston told Heavy. 

So, after four years and earning a bachelor’s degree in Education Sciences, Houston entered the transfer portal in January of 2021 in hopes of doing more in his final year of collegiate football. It was then that he got a call from Pro Football Hall of Famer and Jackson State University head coach Deion Sanders.

Sanders had taken over as the head coach at JSU in 2020 and wanted Houston to be a part of the new regime at the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) located in Jackson, Mississippi.

“At first when I talked to them, I was hesitant, because it was the only FCS school I was talking to at the moment,” Houston told Heavy. “I didn’t know if I really wanted to go that route. I had kind of warmed up to the idea, but I wasn’t sold in my own head [yet].”

However, once Houston visited JSU and got to speak with Coach Sanders in person, he was sold on the idea of joining a program that is trying to do big things on and off the field.

Hearing Coach [Sanders] just kind of talk – when I was on the visit – talk about life, why he was there, and his methodology and what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to bring HBCUs back on the map, I automatically agreed with him. I felt like it was really important for this to happen,” Houston said. 

So, Houston transferred to Jackson State. From there, the Jackson State coaching staff wanted to utilize Houston to his fullest potential, which included a position change.

“Coach Prime [Deion Sanders] thought that I had the ability to blitz and get after the quarterback at linebacker, so one day he decided to put me at d-end, and I kind of balled out, really, at practice.”

It was after a stretch of about three practices following his switch to defensive end that JSU’s head coach sat down with Houston and asked him to permanently transition to defensive end. With a lot of trust in his coaches, Houston was willing to do it. And boy, did it pay off.

During the 2021 season, Houston recorded 52 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception and 2 defensive touchdowns, per the school’s website. Houston was named first-team All-SWAC, STATS FCS All-American, and FCS Coaches All-American for his efforts. JSU finished the 2021 season with an 11-2 record, and the program was crowned the SWAC champions for the first time since 2007.

“I feel like I made one of the best decisions of my life going to Jackson State,” Houston said. 

Houston’s Draft Stock: What It Would Mean to Join Chiefs

There’s no guarantee that Houston’s name will be called by any NFL team during the 2022 NFL draft. Houston — 6-foot-1, 241 pounds — is considered a Day 3 prospect who can make an impact in the league as a special-teamer/pass-rush specialist, per NFL Media.

However, if he is selected, he’ll be the first HBCU player to get drafted to the NFL since 2020 (Lachavious Simmons).

Although HBCUs have not been a pool that NFL teams frequently dip into for talent, players like Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard — who played his college ball at South Carolina State, was drafted in 2018, and has been a three-time All-Pro in four NFL seasons — have proven that HBCU prospects should be taken seriously at the next level. That’s what Sanders is looking to further prove at JSU, which can be backed by Houston this year.

It’s everything [potentially being drafted]. Like I told you, I’ve been playing football since I was eight [years old]. I’ve been training for this moment; I’ve been watching NFL drafts since I was probably nine or 10, so I’m just waiting for my moment,” Houston said.

“Even if [being drafted] doesn’t come, just knowing that my opportunity is still going to be there, to be on a team and compete to be in the NFL … I’m just really excited, a little bit nervous, a little bit stressed, but overall excited and ready to get back on the football field, because in this process everybody kind of talking about you, they got certain opinions of you that you might not agree with. I just want to go out there and let my play do the talking.”

As for the chance of him potentially being drafted by the Chiefs, Houston would consider that God’s work.

“Being from Kansas City and having those ties, that puts more fuel to the fire. It would be a blessing to play for the Chiefs, and hopefully, they call me on draft day.”

Houston’s abilities would fill a need for Kansas City’s defense. The Chiefs’ defense tallied 31 total sacks during the 2021 season, which ranked fourth-worst in the NFL, per StatMuse. Adding talent alongside Chris Jones and Frank Clark is a top priority for Kansas City in the draft, which Veach detailed during his pre-draft press conference on April 22.

While the AFC West champions are likely to address the pass-rush department in some form during the early rounds, adding someone like Houston, who due to his size could be utilized as a pass rusher from the linebacker position, makes sense. It’s just a matter of deciding on whether to use a late-round pick on him or waiting in hopes of him going undrafted and signing him after the draft.

At this point, I know I can play football,” Houston said. “I have a certain set of skills that can be displayed on the football field. So whatever position you want to put me at, I can do anything that you ask me to do.”

The 2022 NFL draft will begin on Thursday, April 28 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


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