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Texas' Lamarr Houston finally at home in the trenches

7/2/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The rest of the Big 12 should consider themselves warned. Lamarr Houston is finally feeling comfortable at defensive tackle.

After playing defensive end earlier in his college career, Houston moved inside last season to help fill a hole for Texas. A foot injury and his new surroundings kept him from really ever thriving at the new position last season.

But that will all change as Houston begins his second season at defensive tackle when training camp starts for the Longhorns.

"It's a completely different position from defensive end," Houston said. "The contact coming on you is so much faster and it's on every play. It comes immediately after the ball is snapped. You have to get used to that."

Houston has worked on boxing techniques to get ready for the hand-to-hand combat inside in the trenches. After a year of playing experience, he finally feels ready to blossom in his senior season.

"Obviously, playing defensive tackle is totally different from what I was used to," Houston said. "It was quite an adjustment mentally for me. But I got over it plenty fast and feel like I'm coming along in learning my position."

Houston's on-the-field development, as well as his leadership, will be critical for a Texas defensive line that is judged as one of the team's primary question marks.

The defensive front loses key performers from last season's unit like Roy Miller, Brian Orakpo, Henry Melton and Aaron Lewis. That group that led the nation in sacks and ranked third nationally in rush defense.

"It's always hard to replace those guys like Orakpo, Miller and Melton," Houston said. "But we recruit so that our tradition never really graduates."

Houston said he is eager to disprove doubters who are labeling the defensive front as a liability coming into the season. Sergio Kindle is poised to take over Orakpo's featured role as the Longhorns' primary pass rusher. Alexander will battle with Kheeston Randall and Michael Wilcoxon for Miller's old role. And Sam Acho and Eddie Jones will be pitted for Melton's starting job, along with the addition of celebrated freshman pass-rushing specialist Alex Okafor.

"Once the season starts, we'll just have to prove everybody wrong again," Houston said. "It was like that around here for our defensive line a couple of years ago when Derek Lokey and Frank Okam left. This will just give us another chance to prove ourselves again.

"I love it that people aren't expecting a lot out of us. It's fun to be the underdog."

His game has been transformed after moving inside. Teammates detect a distinct attitude change as they rely on Houston's strength beating opposing linemen in the trenches as much as they used to depend on him rushing quarterbacks from the edge.

Texas coaches saw Houston's explosiveness and thought he would be ideal at defensive tackle because of his natural strength, his quickness and good footwork.

"I don't think he liked it when they first moved him inside, but it was best for the defense," Texas linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said. "Lamarr has really developed. He had to learn how to play inside, but he's really come along this spring."

He's also developed into a leader on the team, where he will be challenged to fill the role that Miller provided so ably for the defensive front last season.

"It's different being one of the older guys," Houston said. "There's a lot of responsibility and I just try to go out and lead by example now. It's a process of switching over to a senior -- you're looked up to a little bit more now."

Houston appeared in 12 games last season, making eight starts despite battling a chronic foot injury for most of the season. The injuries and position change limited him to 22 tackles, 1.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 11 quarterback pressures and five passes defensed. He notched a season-best five tackles in the Longhorns' comeback victory over Oklahoma.

After helping lead the Longhorns to a share of the Big 12 South title and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl over Ohio State, Houston briefly considered declaring for the NFL draft. But he opted to return to for his senior season, in part because he wanted to be the first member of his family to graduate from college.

His football career has been marked by transition. The 6-foot-2, 290-pounder has added 30 pounds since coming into the Texas program after playing running back and linebacker at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs. While there, he was named by the Rocky Mountain News as the top defensive player in the state and he also produced 3,325 yards rushing in his high-school career.

Those numbers and his production led to a spirited recruiting battle. The Longhorns finally won out over a cast of suitors that also included USC, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan and LSU.

The son of two ministers, Houston was born in San Francisco and lived in California until he moved to Colorado Springs when he was 9 years old.

He is a rare player among the Longhorns coming from out of state. Only seven members of the team come from outside Texas. And among key players, only Houston, tight end Blaine Irby (Camarillo, Calif.), Alexander (Anderson, S.C.) and safety Nolan Brewster (Denver, Colo.) are from outside the Lone Star State.

The Longhorns under Mack Brown have traditionally relied on less out-of-state talent on their roster than any other major national power.

Being around all of the Texans on the Longhorns' roster prompted some good-natured kidding from his teammates when Houston arrived on the team.

"I know when I got here it took a little getting used to," Houston said. "Calling it a sense of pride is probably being a little nice. With some people it's pride, and with others, it's just arrogance."

But after several years in Austin around his teammates, he's now considered a Texan -- albeit a naturalized one.

"The people in Texas are different -- it's a very prideful state. And I had to get used to the statement that everything is bigger and better down here," Houston said, chuckling. "But after I've been down here for awhile, it's easy to see why they say it."