Georgia Bulldogs offensive linemen Kolton Houston (75) and Dallas Lee (64) do a blocking drill during practice at the University of Georgia. (Special Photo: Dale Zanine)
ATHENS — Kolton Houston has gotten used to answering questions over the last three years.
And in the days leading up to the beginning of Georgia’s preseason football practice Thursday, the Bulldogs’ offensive lineman once again found himself fielding queries from the media.
But this time, the questions are different.
“I’d definitely say that this is the first time I’m going into camp knowing I’m going to play,” the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Buford grad said. “The past few years, I’d found out just before going into camp that I wasn’t going to be able to play. Now, instead of (worrying about eligibility), I’m just worried about stuff that happens on the field.”
Indeed, after three long years of waiting for enough of a steroid injection he received following shoulder surgery after his senior year at Buford to clear his system, Houston got word late last week that his results from his latest drug screening would allow him to have his eligibility reinstated.
Relief is one way to describe what the former Daily Post All-County selection and Under Armour All-American has been feeling ever since.
But for Houston another word comes to mind.
“It’s very peaceful,” Houston said. “For about two years, I’ve had to wake up every morning and wonder if it will ever come to an end. I didn’t know where my career, or even my life, was going. Now I wake up and it’s completely in the past. There are no more questions (regarding drug tests or eligibility).”
The whole saga began after Houston tested positive for 29-norandrosterone, a substance banned by the NCAA, during a drug screening on April 13, 2010, during his recovery from surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered during his senior year at Buford.
While subsequent tests indicated that he had not used the substance again, the level of it that remained in his system lingered above the NCAA-mandated threshold for more than three years.
Through that long and difficult wait, Houston was able to practice with the team, but for someone used to competing as much as he was, the wait was to take.
And nobody understood more than his Bulldog teammates, particularly his fellow linemen, and nobody outside of Houston and his family is happier about his return.
“That’s just a blessing that he’s been able to get that opportunity back,” senior guard Chris Burnette said. “He’s been here working hard with us for three and a half years. To finally see him with an opportunity where if he earns the position, he’ll be out there playing. I know he’ll probably get a huge standing ovation (from the Sanford Stadium crowd) when he finally does get an opportunity.”
The support his fellow linemen, including former Buford teammate and another senior guard Dallas Lee, gave him did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by Houston.
And he admits the wait would’ve been considerably more difficult to deal with emotionally with out that support.
“Dallas was real good support for me,” Houston said. “Our kinship goes back to high school, but really all the offensive linemen have been there for me. We might not always be the biggest or the strongest line, but there are 17 of us, and all 17 of us are best friends. That’s all an offensive line is, chemistry. That’s our best asset.”
Now that the old questions about Houston are gone, new ones arise.
Among them, having sat out three years, just how much college eligibility will have remaining?
Houston is currently listed as a junior on Georgia’s roster, meaning he officially has two years of eligibility left, though he says he will be able to apply to the NCAA for an additional year once those two are exhausted.
In the meantime, he and the Georgia coaches will try to figure out exactly where he fits in the teams game plan now that he’s back.
According to head coach Mark Richt, who is as thrilled to have Houston back and adding to the team’s line depth as the Bulldog players are, the answer is any number of places.
“It’s a great thing for him and for us,” Richt said of Houston’s return. “Right now, he’ll work at a guard spot. I don’t know if (offensive line) Coach (Will) Friend has just totally nailed down where everyone is going to be, but starting out, he’ll be at the left guard position, getting work there. But he’s going to cross-train. He’ll know the right guard, and we all know he’s athletic enough to play tackle, as well. We don’t want to give him too much (initially), but Day One, he’s sitting at No. 2 left guard.”
That means that as close as he is with Lee and Burnette, he will now be in direct competition with both for playing time.
But while Burnette anticipates that competition to be fierce, he expects the only result of it will be for the line to get better, no matter who wins.
“I feel like whenever you see a guy excited about an opportunity, it gets contagious. One of the thing we always care about is attitude, and having a guy who really didn’t have a shot prior (to this year) regardless of how well he was played to finally get that breakthrough, I think it’s going to pay dividends, not just for him for everybody else.
“We love to compete. We want the five best guys on the field because that’s what’s going to get us to that championship goal that we have. Regardless of what happens, we know that we’ve got to pick up our level of play because we know that we have a lot of talented guys, a lot of experienced guys. We’re going to do whatever it takes to break through and get the five best, cohesive guys on the field.”
Another lingering question for Houstin is that while he was able to practice during his ineligibility, how much catching up will he have to do after three years away from actual game action.
That’s another question Houston says he isn’t concerned about.
“There’s always going to be some rust,” Houston said. “But physically, I’m in shape. So hopefully, I’ll be able to shake that off after the first couple of practices.”