They said he was too small.
Standing at 5-foot-9 and 168 pounds, Stephen Houzah played every game as a Panther at Lakeside High School in Evans, Georgia, as either a cornerback, wide receiver, or return specialist.
His impact on the gridiron led to an influx of awards as a senior. The Atlanta Journal Constitution named him a first-team all-state honoree, he won 2014 Defensive Player of the Year in GHSA Region 2-AAAAA and he was tabbed county defensive player of the year, as well.
But instead of recognizing Houzah, who — according to Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb — was the most valuable player on his team, college scouts turned their heads to fellow defensive back Rashad Roundtree. He wasn’t too small.
At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Roundtree had the tantalizing size college coaches at the FBS level search for in recruits. Ranked as the 33rd overall player and third best safety in the 2015 class by Rivals.com, Roundtree, a five-star recruit, chose the University of Georgia on signing day.
But despite Roundtree’s accolades and hype, high school coaches in the area said Houzah was the more impressive overall player, Lamb said.
“Roundtree was more of a bigger-bodied kid,” Lamb said. “But at the end of the day, every high school coach we talked to in the Augusta area felt like Stephen Houzah was the best player on the team overall because of all the things he brought to the table at returner, receiver and corner.”
He was just too small. Such height and weight concerns allowed Mercer to nab Houzah, Lamb said. Programs such as Appalachian State, Marshall, Chattanooga and Jacksonville State recruited him, but Houzah eventually signed with Mercer because of the academic prowess and his relationship with defensive line coach Kenny Baker.
“[Education] was big for me and my family,” Houzah said. “A degree from Mercer can take you a long way. I was thinking about, not football, but after football. That’s why I decided where I wanted to come.”
But, as Lamb put it, the Bears also had “an in” because of Baker. The second-year coach served as the defensive coordinator at Lakeside while Houzah was a Panther. After Baker left Augusta, he joined the staff at Berry College as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for a year before coming to Mercer.
“Coach Baker didn’t only know Stephen; he knew the entire family,” Lamb said.
Houzah said he first heard about Mercer through Baker and, as the saying goes, “the rest was history.”
But Houzah’s timestamp in history began in Atlanta. The freshman was born in Austell, a city in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and started his football journey in his backyard. He tried his hand at flag football at the age of 6, but once he reached tackle football, a light switched.
“I got to tackle football, and it was something I knew I wanted to do when I got older,” Houzah said.
He started playing football as a running back until he progressively moved to wide receiver, then defensive back as a sophomore in high school. And then the flip switched for a second time.
“That’s when I found out that this football could take me a long way as far as education,” Houzah said.
That realization came to fruition, and even though Houzah said he was “maybe underrated a little bit,” he was not resentful toward Roundtree.
“I wouldn’t say I was better than him,” Houzah said of his former teammate. “We worked out together; we trained together, so we were just feeding off each other.”
Houzah said he found the right fit in Mercer.
“Everything happened for a reason,” he said.
For Lamb and the coaching staff, Houzah was an exciting acquisition for the third-year program entering its second year in the competitive Southern Conference. Not only has Houzah brought a playmaking ability to the secondary and the return game, Lamb said, but he also offered depth to a thin secondary.
In 2014, the Bears used Alex Avant and — before suffering an injury — Jeremy James primarily at cornerback.
“They played every snap because we didn’t feel good about our backup corners,” Lamb said. “Now, Stephen comes in, and he helps us out a little bit with a rotation now.”
Defensive backs coach Mitch Doolittle also spoke of how Houzah has created a sense of competition on the field.
“It has helped our whole team, our whole defensive backfield, by having him just because he’s so competitive and a good football player,” Doolittle said. “It makes those around him better, as well.”
Houzah has played a role in every game this season, both at cornerback and as a kick returner. His breakout game was the team’s home-opener against Stetson, in which the freshman snatched two interceptions and returned the opening kickoff 40 yards.
The two interceptions were the most by any Mercer player in a game since the program was re-established in 2013. Houzah’s hands and shifty feet are conducive to playmaking ability, both Lamb and Doolittle agreed.
“You look for guys that are explosive out of their break and can really cut really quick — as we call it, ‘cutting on a dime,’” Lamb said. “And he can do that. He’s really quick out of his break. He’s quick to break on the ball.”
But those playmaking characteristics can be a downfall as a player transitions from high school to college. Cleaning up the little techniques in his game will be key for Houzah, Doolittle said.
“In college, everybody is good,” he said. “He’s having to learn, ‘OK, I can’t just rely on my athletic ability. I need skills. I need techniques. I need good discipline with my eyes, with my techniques.’”
One of those techniques Houzah and Doolittle have focused on so far has been eye discipline.
“This isn’t high school where you can just watch the quarterback and follow the ball and make plays,” Doolittle said. “These offenses are too good — quarterbacks are too good, receivers are too good — for us to be staring in the backfield because you’ll get run by.”
Around Mercer, there’s no talk of Houzah being too small. Rather, it’s how big of an impact he can make as he develops.
“He has a tremendous amount of ability given to him by God, however, he will be able to develop that ability even more in the off-season,” Lamb said. “I think the sky is the limit for this young man.”
And even though Houzah has made an early impact during his short time at Mercer, he’s not complacent. He hopes for big things — like a SoCon championship and a shot at the NFL.
The script hasn’t ended yet.
“I’m still writing my story,” he said.