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The Daily Tar Heel

Houston sheds pounds to gain extra yardage

Ryan Houston has lost 28 pounds from his freshman to junior seasons. DTH File/Andrew Dye
Ryan Houston has lost 28 pounds from his freshman to junior seasons. DTH File/Andrew Dye

When Ryan Houston arrived at practice for his first conditioning drills his freshman year, he considered himself to be in pretty good shape.

But as soon as he heard North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors rattle off what he expected out of every player, Houston learned just how far he had to go.

Connors wanted sprints — 16 of them — all exactly 110 yards and every single one a race against the clock.

“I know that if I had to do it, I couldn’t have done it,” Houston said.

Fortunately for the then-273-pound tailback, first-year players weren’t required to pass the test.

But while his physical limitations didn’t keep him from practicing with the team, they did limit his production on the field.

Touted by Rivals as the No. 21 running back recruit in the nation and No. 7 player in North Carolina, Houston found himself buried on UNC’s depth chart.

An admittedly rotund Houston slogged for only 145 yards on 44 attempts that year, good for just a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.

“I always would see the hole, but I couldn’t always make it going as fast as I could because I was so heavy,” Houston said. 

“Trying to play at this level, I felt like after my first season I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go.”

Getting there required two major lifestyle changes for a player who was becoming known more for his mammoth size than his carries.

Out was a sedentary offseason filled with fried chicken, fast food and other greasy fares.

In their place came a steady diet of fruit, vegetables and — of course — plenty of running.

The result has been the classic case of addition by subtraction.

Having dropped his weight by 28 pounds to a svelte 245, Houston’s well on his way to his most productive season at UNC in his junior season.

“With his weight being down from what it was when he was a freshman, he’s quicker. His change of direction is better,” running backs coach Ken Browning said.

Houston has used that improved speed to boost his yards per carry to 4.0 this season, rushing for 287 yards and seven touchdowns.

But that’s not to say Houston — the power back in the Tar Heels’ backfield ­— still doesn’t utilize all of the size he has left.

Houston has only been brought down once for a loss the entire season, making him particularly effective on short yardage situations and late-game conditions.

“When they’re tired and he still weighs 245 pounds in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to bring some wood to drop the guy,” Browning said. “You had better wrap up and get some help.”

Used primarily in a backup role to Shaun Draughn early in the season, Houston’s production when he did see the field could not be ignored by UNC’s coaches.

After the Tar Heels’ loss to Virginia, coach Butch Davis said the workload split between the two backs would move closer to even due to Houston’s ability to almost always gain positive yardage.

So far, that decision has sparked plenty of improvement in a running game that struggled to open conference play.

UNC rushers have combined for more than 150 total rushing yards in each of the three games following Houston’s increased time on the field.

“I love that substitution the coaches are doing because it keeps me fresh and it keeps him fresh,” Draughn said. “When he gets in, he’s hungry, and when I get it, I’m hungry.”

And as for those sprints?

Once a source of anxiety for a chunky freshman, now they are a necessity for a chiseled junior.

“Now it’s like clockwork for me,” Houston said. “I’m in shape like that.”

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