March 30, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – “Houston, we have a problem.”
New Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater didn’t say quite that a couple of weeks ago when asked to assess where his side of the football stood entering spring practice.
The phrase would have fit, however, after Heater remarked: “I can tell you we’ve got issues at linebacker and safety.”
Well, a Houston might be part of the fix. Freshman strong side linebacker Stefan Houston, on campus only a couple of months after his arrival from the prep-school program at Fork Union Military Academy, has been something of an eye-opener in the first few days of spring drills for Coach Doc Holliday’s club.
“He’s very athletic; we like him a lot,” Holliday said of Houston, considered one of the highlights of the 2013 recruiting class. “He’s strong, works extremely hard. He’s a little further along than I thought he’d be. He jumped in here in January and handled all of the winter stuff, the weight program. We’re really glad he’s here.”
Houston and fellow freshman Kent Turene, on the weak side, have been running at No. 2. They are filling a lack of depth Heater saw at the position, while still have a lot to learn.
Houston had committed to Maryland (September 2011) in high school at Clarksburg, Md., picking the Terps over Rutgers, West Virginia and East Carolina. Then, he didn’t get the needed ACT score and headed to FUMA, where Herd defensive line coach and Virginia recruiter J.C. Price saw Houston work out in a combine and was impressed.
Price’s past connections with FUMA coach John Shuman helped, and after Houston visited the MU campus in mid-December, he switched his commitment. The player’s athletic ability jumped off the field to Price, just as it has in early workouts at Edwards Stadium.
“I’ve got a whole lot to learn,” Houston said Thursday after the Herd’s second of 15 spring workouts. “The techniques I have to go through with team progressions are new. I’m having fun; this is phenomenal. It’s kind of what I thought it would be like.
“The opportunity I’m getting makes me feel like I maybe can start, or get a lot of playing time even if I don’t start. I can be second string and progress from there. If figure if the person in front of me is a veteran and I watch him, then I’m going to know what to do next time out.”
Houston has been playing behind rising junior Derek Mitchell on the strong side. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Houston has run a 4.39 in the 40, and he said he added 20 pounds in Fork Union’s strength program.
He played safety in the FUMA prep program after being an outside linebacker, wide receiver and even a quarterback in the wildcat set as a Washington Post All-Met second team pick at Clarksburg. When Houston reached his needed ACT score in December, he realized he could enroll at MU in January and go through spring ball.
At Clarksburg in 2011, Houston had 38 receptions for 698 yards and 12 touchdowns, plus 283 rushing yards in the Wildcat. At FUMA, he was rated as the No. 3 prep-school outside linebacker nationally by one web-based recruiting service.
“I do miss offense,” Houston said, “but I had to let it go because defense is my first love. Yes sir, I like hitting instead of getting hit.
“It’s just a lot different at linebacker from safety, where I was at Fork Union, so different. I have to be on the line at time now, and use my hands a lot more. I need to be more physical and still get bigger, stronger. You deal with offensive linemen blocking you. That’s why the weight program (at FUMA) helped me a lot.
“It’s way, way different from high school. Everyone here is bigger, stronger, faster. I have to use the fundamentals Coach (Adam) Fuller is teaching to adapt to my abilities.
Fuller, the Herd’s new linebackers coach, is a positive force for Houston, who sometimes sees his position coach in his facemask grill.
“I like the way Coach Fuller coaches,” Houston said. “I like it because he tells me what’s wrong so I can learn and move on. He’s always encouraging me to do better.”
Fuller views Houston as a player with a world of potential and possibilities – now and in future seasons.
“His intangibles are that he’s long, athletic and he can run,” Fuller said of Houston. “The intangibles are he’s very conscientious; he wants to be good – those are important things. He wants to learn.
“I don’t think he’s ahead of what we expected. Stefan’s about what we thought he would be -- a really good athlete, a really good football player. We’ll start seeing how he adapts, how fast he adapts, but he’s shown some good things.”
Fuller said Houston’s ability to play quarterback, wideout and linebacker in high school and safety at Fork Union speaks to the Herd rookie’s athleticism, but his concentration on one role will aid Houston and Marshall’s defense.
“It’s hard to pigeon-hole with some people, but others do it flawlessly,” Fuller said. “There are guys that can never do it, guys that can take a little bit to do it. I think he fits, he’s kind of in middle right there. You can tell he’s been ‘in’ there before, from the standpoint of he’s put himself in the position that he can play in there so I think it’s just going to take a lot of snaps.
“Now, we’ve got him playing an outside position, so things just come at him from one side. When they’re just coming at you from one side, you can handle it and I think that’s what happening with Stefan so far.
“He feels pretty comfortable, but if something happens on the outside, he’s ‘Hey, let me get a feel for this.’ But we’ve got him at a position where he can probably learn quickly and play faster, so we’re hoping that happens.”
Asked about eventually choosing Marshall, Houston said the Herd’s program gave “me more opportunity to get better, I thought. The learning program will help me, and getting my degree is important to me.
“The environment around here is so family-like, supportive. It’s a small community, and everybody basically knows you and that makes me feel comfortable.”
That’s what Holliday, Heater and Fuller are trying to do with Houston at strong side linebacker. They really don’t want to tame a former wildcat. They just want him to find a comfort zone in his new football home.