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August 28, 2010Running back Ryan Houston heads into his senior season as one of three seniors in North Carolina's tailback rotation, as the Tar Heels have also been working in Johnny White and Shaun Draughn to give the Tar Heels some versatility and differing looks.
"Yeah, it's going wonderful (rotating in three backs)," said Houston.
"We all like the idea of us rotating and giving defenses a different look every time, and just attacking from different areas. It will be great for our offense and take pressure off T.J. (Yates)."
While White has been regarded as a 'speed' guy and Draughn classified as more of a traditional every-down back, Houston has earned a well-deserved reputation as a go-to player on third downs, goal line and other short-yardage situations.
"I feel like all of us have different styles," he said. "It depends on who's out there, but I think all of us are going to make plays.
"I'm not saying I'm just a 'power' guy---Johnny is strong and Shaun is strong---and we've all got decent speed. I don't feel there's any change-up with anybody in there."
"For the previous years I've been helping the team on short yardage and anything to help the team. If they call me again for that role I'll be glad to take it," Houston continued.
Houston spent this offseason not only cracking the books---he sat out all of the spring season in order to make sure he'd be eligible this fall---but also working out in an intense program designed to help him shed weight while maintaining his strength and power.
Now down to a lighter 240 pounds, Houston is more mobile and has more stamina.
"The point of emphasis for him (Houston) was to try to increase his speed and mobility, and I think he accomplished that by losing weight," said UNC head coach Butch Davis.
"He has found coming in as a true freshman weighing 260-something pounds, that every year he's gotten lighter he's gotten more explosive," Davis added.
"That was one of my major things (keeping my strength and power)," Houston said. "My dad, when I was telling him I was losing all this weight, he was saying just to keep your power."
"I made that a spot of emphasis for instance on inside run (drills). When I have a contact I lift my shoulders and jolt as hard as I can, just to keep the motor running and make sure my power is still there," he added.
Last fall Houston was part of a two-man running back tandem that included Draughn, but he was thrust into the primary role when Draughn went down in November early in the game against Duke.
Houston could have used the weight loss then to get through the rigors of being Carolina's primary back, but it was a good lesson for him to see that he needs to be in better shape to handle any potential scenario as far as playing time.
"I think that last year he found that when the load was on his shoulders the second half of the season when Shaun fractured his shoulder, that even being a little bit more fit and a little quicker would have certainly served him a little bit better," Davis said. "But you have to respect guys that recognize areas where they can get better."
"(Losing weight has helped me) just exploding when I hit the hole," Houston said.
"If you hit the hole a half-second quicker its better, not only for the time on the play but for the linemen, just to set up their blocks."
Although his biggest areas of emphasis in the offseason were grades and improving his body, Houston says he also grew in the mental area of the game.
"I'd say (my knowledge has improved in) pass protection and reading the defense---knowing what's going to happen on the defense before it happens," he said. "In previous years you'd just go in there blind, but now looking at film and watching keys, it's really helped me out."
UNC hasn't had a 1,000-yard running back since Jonathan Linton back in 1997---although Draughn had an outside chance last season before his injury.
With three running backs all looking for extensive work in games it decreases the likelihood that this will be the year the streak ends, but for Houston the biggest key is simply developing a consistent running game week in and week out.
With a much more experienced group of offensive linemen in front of him, along with three seniors at running back, Houston thinks this could very well be the year they turn the corner.
"We haven't had a 1,000-yard back in a long time, but I feel like with the trio, it will be better for our offense---the way we run---just to switch it up," he said.
"I feel like there's a lot of pressure on us to see how the running backs are going to do. We really haven't had a really outstanding back, but all of us are good enough to be that outstanding back."
"I feel like if we hit on all areas, and with a more experienced O-line, then we should do well," Houston continued. "Our running game should be powerful."
The experience of having to sit out spring ball to ensure his academics were on track was a humbling lesson in learning to make sure he takes care of things off the field as well as on the field.
"(I learned through missing the spring) just keeping my head in and not looking down," he said.
"I was watching a lot of film and going hard in the weight room, getting in shape. I was just attacking the game on an 'on the field' and 'off the field' perspective," he added.
He admits that it's a little shocking to him that he's now a senior and is reaching the climactic phase of his experience at North Carolina.
"Yeah. I've got to do a reality check," he laughed. "In class when they say my name and you say 'Yeah, I'm a senior,' you're just like, 'Whoa.' Then you see freshmen in class and its like, 'Wow.' It's a new look."
"It's been a good journey though," he added.
"I hate to see it end but I've got to grow up and take on the next level."
Houston's personal goals for the 2010 season are for the Tar Heels to succeed---nothing more and nothing less.
"I just want to win with my boys---that's all really," he said. "I don't have any personal goals and I'm not looking for any goals to myself."
"Everybody says you're going to have some personal goals yourself, but my personal goal is this team," he added.
"I just want to have a good season this year."