WOODSTOCK – Folks outside Central’s football program know the big names that have powered the Falcons to success over much of the past three seasons. But beyond the all-state names like Kyle Clanton, Declan Franklin and Grayson Manning, a workhorse running back like Shane Watson and a reliable presence at quarterback in Zeb Dyer, there are those whose production often gets lost in the shuffle.
Senior receiver/defensive back Nick Houghton is one such player who has started thriving in the shadow of Central’s superstars. Never on the short list of the Falcons’ household names, Houghton has no qualms about his position as a complementary piece. He prefers it that way.
“I like the role I’ve played,” Houghton said before practice on Monday as the No. 2 Falcons prepare to host No. 3 Luray in the Region 2B semifinals on Friday night.
“I don’t need to be in the big lights. I don’t need my name blasted everywhere. I’m happy where I am.”
Houghton may not be able to lurk in the background much longer if he continues to produce the way he has in Central’s past two games. In that span, which included back-to-back games against rival Strasburg, first in the regular-season finale and then in a first-round playoff matchup last week, Houghton has eight receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns and snagged an interception on defense.
The third-year varsity player had perhaps the best game of his career in the regular-season finale against the Rams, catching four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, a stat line that included a 55-yard catch-and-run TD in Central’s 55-14 win.
Houghton’s encore performance in the rematch against Strasburg was just as good, if not better. He caught four passes for 64 yards and another touchdown, and he made a juggling catch on an interception in the third quarter to set up a Falcons TD that extended their lead to 15 points.
“Nick is a super kid,” Falcons head coach Mike Yew said of Houghton, who has 13 receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns this season. “He’s a high-energy kid, and he’s excited to be out there playing football and practicing every day. I don’t wanna say he’s a late bloomer because Nick has helped us all three years on varsity, but it seems like in the last few weeks he’s really come into his own, even making bigger plays. And it couldn’t happen to a better kid. Every day he’s the kid that’s upbeat, excited. He just loves playing football, and I’m just really happy for him that it’s happening that way.”
Houghton’s performance in last week’s 28-6 win over the Rams highlighted the progress he’s made as a receiver since joining the varsity team as a sophomore in 2016. In those three years, Houghton said, he’s become more physical on the field and in the weight room, and he’s gotten faster while also developing better hands as a pass catcher.
On his 21-yard TD reception from quarterback Zeb Dyer that put the game away with 7:23 to play, Houghton beat the Strasburg defensive back on a corner route to the left pylon and made a spinning grab near the goal line on a pass that was thrown to his outside shoulder. It was the type of athletic play Houghton said he wouldn’t have made two years ago.
“He’s definitely worked on his ability to find the ball,” Dyer said, “and he’s making plays when it comes his way.”
That includes his play on the defensive side, as well. Houghton’s added physicality has allowed Central’s coaching staff to use the senior in a variety of roles on that side of the ball this season, and it’s not unusual for Houghton to line up as a cornerback, safety or outside linebacker depending on the opposing team’s offensive formation.
Houghton was fifth on the team with 40 tackles entering last week’s game, and his interception last Friday was the fifth of his career and second this season. The 6-foot-0, 175-pound senior also made a leaping pass breakup on a deep ball intended for 6-2 Strasburg senior Stephen Kloosterman, as Houghton got his hand in to rip the ball loose as the two fell to the turf.
“He can get it done,” Yew said. “He runs well, he’s an incredible jumper, so for him, he’s just a good all-around athlete, and we put him out there to make plays.”
Houghton is one in a group of 15 seniors who have made plenty of big plays during a period that will go down as one of the best in Central history. Since 2016, the year most of those seniors joined the varsity squad, the Falcons are 30-5 and have reached the regional semifinals three times.
“We’ve been together since 7, 8 years old,” Houghton said as he stood outside the team’s locker room. “I mean, we’ve grown up together, and we’re so tight, and we’re so close. That’s my family in there.”