The triumvirate of Little, Draughn and Houston struggled to find consistency and a rhythm with the offensive line in the first three games, totaling just 283 total rushing yards, which included a combined 73-yard performance against FCS opponent McNeese State to open the schedule.
But North Carolina's fortunes started to change for the better in the fourth game of the season at Miami, when the trio grinded out 79 tough yards on 26 carries against a Miami run defense ranked 24th nationally (109.9 yards allowed per game). The following week, Lowell Dyer replaced Aaron Stahl as the starter at center and Alan Pelc claimed the first-team honors at left guard, and the Tar Heels' ground game hasn't looked back.
Draughn has settled in as the feature back (98.4-yard average over the past five games), while Houston has become the epitome of a short-yardage specialist (236 yards, 7 TD from inside the 3-yard line). Behind that duo, the Tar Heels rushed for a season-best 186 yards and a 4.4-yard per carry average against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
So it only made sense that Houston – all 241 pounds of him – adorned eye black that read "Thunder," and Draughn countered with "Lightning" on his cheek during the 28-7 victory over the Yellow Jackets.
"Before the game, I told Shaun that I was going to put my area code and 'Thunder' on, and he needed to put 'Lightning,'" Houston told reporters during Monday's press conference. "We just try to unify our [strengths] in the backfield. We know we're both tremendous players with the ball, so we just try to emphasize that."
The new and improved ground game has been a blessing for third-string-turned-starting-quarterback Cam Sexton, as he's guided North Carolina to a 7-2 (3-2 ACC) record and a No. 16 ranking in the BCS standings.
"When you're running the football like we are, and you saw it with the touchdown to Hakeem [Nicks against Georgia Tech], they have to come up and respect the run," Sexton said. "That opens up stuff downfield and that opens up stuff wide on the sidelines because they have to respect that running game. But it also sets up the play-action game, and it takes something off our offensive linemen so that they don't have to pass block every play."
Sexton pointed to the emergence of Draughn and Houston, as well as the ever-developing chemistry of the offensive unit, when asked about the keys to the ground game's recent run. The red-shirt junior also suggested that solid coaching has paid dividends for the two sophomore tailbacks.
"We don't have guys that are necessarily looking to bounce it [outside]," Sexton said. "I think they're doing a good job of finding those very tight creases in ACC football. They're hard to come by, but I think we also have a good understanding of if it's not there, let's not make a big loss and just get what we can and try to move the ball forward."
Head coach Butch Davis indicated that the offensive line has played just as significant a role in the rushing attack as Draughn and Houston.
"If I had to say any one thing, in my years of watching running games develop, is the consistency of the offensive linemen [and] not having to play musical chairs," Davis said. "When you can get five offensive linemen and Richard Quinn the tight end and Bobby Rome the fullback, and they are always there together… Because there is so much communication. They talk and communicate [seconds] before the ball is snapped as to how they're going to block and what they're going to do."
But the fact that Draughn and Houston are in their current position serves notice to their own determination. During Davis' weekly radio show last Wednesday, Houston told a story about his head coach addressing him during a team meeting in 2007 – when the sophomore's weight had increased to 273 – and being informed that his future could go in two totally different directions. He would either become a great running back, or he would see time on the offensive line.
Draughn's story was nearly as dramatic, having approached Davis in the offseason about moving to running back. The Tarboro, N.C. product spent extra time working on pass-catching skills, because he had no clue where he may end up.
"Coming into training camp, I was just trying to find a position," Draughn told the live audience at the radio show. "I was sixth on the depth chart, so if they didn't put me at running back, I was going to get in at wide receiver or something."
Draughn and Houston are still learning their position, but their "Thunder and Lightning" rendition has given Tar Heel fans a glimpse of a dangerous tailback duo that hasn't been seen in Chapel Hill since the Johnson and Johnson days of the early 1990s. But don't expect Davis to buy into all of the hype quite yet, as their careers have really only begun.
"You can't disrespect the fact that Ryan Houston and Shaun Draughn have done an excellent job," Davis said. "The running game, like a lot of things in this football program, is still a work in progress. By no stretch of the imagination is it the finished product. It's not where we would like for it to be for the remainder of this year and certainly in the future, but it's definitely improved."
Next for the Tar Heel ground game is a Maryland run defense that ranks 11th in the ACC, allowing 152.3 yards per game.