ATHENS, Ga. — For Kolton Houston, Saturday’s match-up with Clemson is the game he’s anticipated for what seems like a lifetime.
Houston, a junior offensive tackle, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for the past three seasons after testing positive for a banned substance upon enrolling at Georgia. The NCAA reinstated Houston in late July, and the pregame nerves have been building ever since.
“I feel like I’m a freshman again and it’s exciting,” Houston said.
Sure he’s nervous, he’s a junior who hasn’t played a competitive down since high school. He is essentially a freshman, but the strong-willed Houston isn’t letting the lack of game experience shake his confidence.
“I really haven’t been thinking about it a whole lot so I won’t get anxious and get too nervous,” Houston said. “It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be exciting. I think it will finally hit me when they (Clemson) run down that hill. I think I’ll just be overwhelmed with adrenaline and nerves and I think it’s going to be fun.”
Houston has heard the disappointing sound of rejection many times throughout his Georgia career. Finally, he got the news of his reinstatement via phone call just a few days before Georgia kicked off its fall camp. However, Houston wasn’t out of shape or behind mentally. He’s never been the type of player to sit around or slack, even when playing time wasn’t a feasible goal.
“There’s definitely an added spark, but I was the kind of guy that never wanted to slack off or hold back the past three years,” Houston said. “I always thought there was going to be a time where I could play so I always wanted to be ready. I’ve always practiced competitively since I’ve been here and I think that’s what’s helped me now.”
On top of all the pregame jitters that come with an opener, Houston will have to make his debut against Clemson, a team known for fast-paced play. Houston said Georgia’s offensive line will just have to stick to its game plan and remain composed in moments of adversity.
“It’s always hard, especially with it being the first game,” Houston said. “You don’t know what they’ve changed in the off-season, but at the end of the day we have rules for our plays and you just stick to those rules and they’ll get you through it.”
Houston said he’s not particularly worried that his debut will come against a top-10 team.
“I like playing a top team like this in the beginning,” Houston said. “If you can win your first game against a top team like Clemson that’ll catapult you and get that trend going. If you have that momentum going it’s hard to stop.”
While he said Clemson was in the hunt during his recruitment, Georgia was always the place for him.
Clemson’s pregame run down the hill reminds Houston of a few SEC rituals he’s been around. He says the ACC fans can get rowdy too.
“Of the ACC schools who were recruiting me four years ago, that was definitely the closest thing to an SEC atmosphere I could find,” Houston said.
Houston’s story has been nationally publicized, from Twitter posts to a feature on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, but Houston said the hype has died down a bit and he’s become less of a cause and more of a football player.
“I get some tweets every now and then from people who have heard my story and tell me they’re pulling for me,” Houston said. “It’s died down and become all about football now. I don’t have to worry about those other parts of life anymore.”
The tweets have died down, but the texts from his mom haven’t. Houston said his family was all over him throughout fall camp, asking how things were going and counting down the days to Georgia’s season-opener.
“My mom texts me just about every single day,” Houston said. “She’s had a countdown since camp, so I know how excited they are and I’m happy for them that they finally get to see me go out and play.”
Some other people who are excited to see Houston back are his teammates, even those who are competing with him for a top spot on the offensive line.
Watts Dantzler, a junior offensive guard from Dalton, has been a close friend to Houston since the two were being recruited by Georgia. They’re competing for a spot on Will Friend’s offensive line now, but Dantzler says there’s room for both of them.
“Me and Kolton have been friends since I was a sophomore in high school,” Dantzler said. “It’s been tough and I don’t know if there’s anyone in America that could have gone through what he’s gone through. I don’t know how he’s done it, but I’m happy he’s back.”
Dantzler also said he and his fellow offensive linemen never had a problem picking Houston up in the past, even at his lowest points.
“To come back this strong speaks testament to his will power and what kind of person he is,” Dantzler said. “He never gave up. There were some low times for him where we had to encourage him and that’s built the relationship of the O-line.”
Though there were some low times for Houston, he said he showed up to every practice like a regular member of the team. He never stood back and took his punishment, which is why he’s game-ready with just a few days remaining before Georgia travels to Clemson. Houston said he knew he would play eventually, so he’s not shocked at the fact he’s climbing the depth chart.
“I wouldn’t say surprised. At the end of the day I just come here, work hard and give great effort,” Houston said. “That’s all I can control and that sort of just takes care of itself at the end of the day.”
As far as his Georgia debut goes, all Houston knows is that he’ll hit the field at eight on Saturday night.
“It’s a primetime game,” Houston said. “That’s what fans live for.”