John Houston Taking His Chance in USC’s Spring Camp

Linebacker John Houston Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Linebacker John Houston Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /
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Linebacker John Houston has the spotlight on him during USC football spring camp as he works to take his chance and earn a starting job.

USC football has a number of gaps to fill across the line up in 2017, none more important than the one left by graduated linebacker Michael Hutchings, who was the field general of the Trojan defense.

Redshirt sophomore John Houston is the man tasked with taking Hutchings’ place this spring. Sort of.

Since USC’s inside linebacker positions can feel interchangeable at times, it’s simple to say that Houston is replacing Hutchings.

In actuality, it’s junior Cameron Smith who is taking on Hutchings’ role. Houston is really stepping into the place vacated by Smith as a result.

The difference is in experience. Smith is a two-year starter. A veteran. There are new challenges for him and a leadership role to fill in Hutchings’ absence, but he knows the score.

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Despite arriving in the same recruiting class, with even more fanfare, Houston is only just finding his legs.

Despite arriving in the same recruiting class as Smith, with even more fanfare, Houston is only just finding his legs.

The former four-star recruit — one of four heralded linebackers USC added in 2015 — got off to a late start.

While Smith, Porter Gustin and the now-dismissed Osa Masina saw the field right away, Houston was sidelined by a back injury.

The nature of that injury represented a huge set back. A redshirt freshman season is usually reserved for developing, for getting bigger, stronger and faster. For Houston, it was about recovering.

“That was a really hard time for me but I came back and really put in the hard work to be out here, in school and all that,” Houston said. “It took me nine or ten months, at least, to get back to where I needed to be.”

Linebacker John Houston Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Linebacker John Houston Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

By the end of spring camp 2016, Houston finally felt back to normal. But being back physically didn’t equal being ready to play. Houston was still behind developmentally.

“I liked him a lot last year, it’s just he really couldn’t crack into the line up,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

Not that USC couldn’t have used some extra depth at linebacker, but Pendergast is notorious for finding the players he can rely on and sticking with them. Players don’t break into the limited rotation until they can be trusted completely.

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That’s Houston’s task this spring — to earn the trust and break through.

“I always wanted to play and compete, that’s why I came here to SC,” Houston said. “So I feel like this is my time to compete and get this starting job.”

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Through two weeks of spring practice, the job is seemingly Houston’s to lose. Sophomore Jordan Iosefa has become Smith’s understudy at the MIKE position. Early enrollee Tayler Katoa is still learning how to swim.

Competition could heat up in the fall with the arrival of four-star signee Levi Jones, but Houston should have the spotlight to himself at least until then.

“He’s always had the athleticism and the ability to track and get to the ball extremely quickly. And he’s showing that right now,” Clay Helton said. “It’s not perfect. He’s not a finished product, but I’m very impressed with where he’s at right now.”

Houston may not be directly replacing Hutchings, but that’s who he’s trying to emulate as he works to become the finished product the coaches hope he can become.

And even though Hutchings is no longer in uniform, he remains a major influence.

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“Mike’s still a leader, so I feel like I still take notes from him,” Houston said. “He tells me different keys every day I see him.”

Hutchings is a good model to follow. He too took longer than expected to get his career going, but when he got his opportunity, he made it count.

“Coming after him is one of the best things I could do,” said Houston. “He had a lot of experience with the defense. He knows it like both sides of his hands, so I feel like having him as my right hand, trying to help me out, is going to help me out in the season.”

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