Battering Ram Lite

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Go ahead and forgive yourself just in case you need a second look on Sept. 4 in Atlanta to confirm that North Carolina running back Ryan Houston is still wearing his No. 32 jersey.

Houston stepped foot on UNC's campus in the summer of '07 carrying a hefty 273 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. His high school resume spoke for itself – over 4,000 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns during his final two seasons – but his lack of speed and quickness at that weight led many observers to wonder if he was destined for another position.

But the Matthews, N.C. product changed his eating habits and dove into Jeff Connors's strength and conditioning program in Chapel Hill, dropping nearly 30 pounds while earning distinction as North Carolina's indomitable third-down back during his sophomore season in ‘08.

After being thrust into the starter's role at tailback following Shaun Draughn's shoulder injury in the opening minutes of a 19-6 victory over Duke last November, Houston closed out the season with 713 yards and nine touchdowns on 191 carries, good for a 3.7 yards-per-carry average.

Houston sat out spring ball last March and April due to academics, but returned to training camp last week with even less weight on his frame – down to 235 pounds.

"I wasn't even planning to lose weight," Houston said. "I was trying to get to 240, but after working out and doing a lot of running, I just dropped the weight."

His weight loss is obvious. His strength gains have shot up in the weight room, leading to a slimmer look due to more muscle bulk. The result is an improved version of the player that has helped return the term "smash-mouth football" to Tar Heel fans' vocabulary lists.

"I feel like I'm really the same, but I'm a little quicker," Houston said. "When I see the hole, I explode through it and I feel like I'm lower and my balance is better. When I was 245, I was hitting the hole but sometimes I was falling over myself. At this weight, I feel like when I get hit, I can jump back up instead of falling down."

When asked if Houston has picked up where he left off in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last December, UNC head coach Butch Davis replied, "No, he's better."

"It's probably the lightest that he's been since he's been at Carolina," Davis said on Monday. "I think it's affected his quickness. I think it's really affected his ability to cut and get to the next level. He looks, at this stage right now, the best that he's looked in any training camp since he's been here."

Houston prefers not to dwell on the academic problems that held him out of spring ball, only saying that he managed to study film and hit the weight room to keep his mind and body in football shape.

"I had to take care of some issues," Houston said. "Not being able to be with the guys, I couldn't help the team like I really needed to and I had to get back… But I'm glad I sat out the spring so that I could be here in the fall."

Despite Monday's news that freshman tailback Gio Bernard was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in practice on Sunday, North Carolina still returns three veteran backs in Houston, Draughn and Johnny White.

"It's going to be crazy because all three of us bring something different to the table," Houston said. "Shaun's got the jukes for them, Johnny's got the speed and I'm just going to pound it. We're going to mix it up and keep the defense unbalanced, which will be a huge weapon for the running game. And overall, that's going to help T.J. [Yates], because the defense won't know what to expect when we're back there."

Tuesday marked the first time Houston had donned full pads since the bowl game loss to Pittsburgh, but he doesn't expect his weight loss to change his reputation as a bruising back for North Carolina.

"We'll see when we really start hitting, but I feel like I'll still be the battering ram," Houston said.

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