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New Faces 2020: ILB John Houston

There isn’t much else to do while we sit here and wait for news about whether or not there will even be training camp, so it seems as good a time as any to bring back this series, in which we look to introduce some of the new players that the Pittsburgh Steelers have added to the mix since the end of the 2019 season.

The team added some notable pieces in free agency, which was important, because they didn’t have much to work with in terms of draft capital due to previous trades. They also made liberal use of the XFL’s closure, signing about as many players from there as the rest of the league combined. Even while claiming that they didn’t have a lot of roster room, they still signed a good number of rookie college free agents as well, enough that they had to release three players just to make room for them.

Since the Steelers could announce their roster cuts any day now, and I could be writing about a player as a new face in an article that publishes after he is cut, I’m hoping to stem the tide and start publishing the new faces column earlier, swapping places with the training camp battles series.

The Steelers suffered losses to the inside linebacker position since last season, with 2019 free agent signing Mark Barron being a necessary salary cap casualty at the start of the offseason. In addition to Barron’s departure, who was a starter last year, Tyler Matakevich also signed a free agent contract.

That leaves Devin Bush in the starting lineup, and veteran Vince Williams returning to a full-time starting role, with a pair of second-year players in Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane behind them. Gilbert was a sixth-round pick who spent half the year on injured reserve. Spillane was an undrafted free agent signed in the offseason who was on the practice squad, and replaced Gilbert for the second half of the season, racking up special teams tackles.

The Steelers did not address the inside linebacker position either in free agency or in the draft, but they did using college free agency, for example, with the signing of John Houston, a 23-year-old coming out of USC after spending five seasons there.

After a redshirt season in 2015, Houston played in 10 games the following year, finishing his career as a three-year starter. He totaled 271 tackles during his college career with 13 tackles for loss, including seven in his senior season. He also had five sacks, half of which came in 2019, in addition to a forced fumble, an interception, and 12 passes defensed.

The good thing about the inside linebacker position is that there is always room for somebody to shoulder his way in, like Spillane did last year, and others have in the past, like Terence Garvin. If you can make an impact on special teams, you can be the fifth linebacker, and potentially even work your way into a bigger role like L.J. Fort did.

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