The Matthews, N.C. product stepped foot on UNC’s campus last summer carrying a svelte 273 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. There was no denying his abilities in the backfield – he posted over 4,000 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns during his final two seasons in high school – but there was legitimate concern as to whether or not he had the speed and quickness to stay at his preferred position in college.
After all, a Jerome Bettis-type player doesn’t come around very often.
The North Carolina coaching staff encouraged Houston during training camp last August, telling him to run at a weight that he was most comfortable with during his initial season in Chapel Hill. If changes needed to occur, those would take place during the offseason.
But Houston realized that he was unable to produce in fall camp the way that he thought he would be able to, and decided to drop his weight after the season ended to become a more effective running back for the Tar Heels.
“In the offseason [strength and conditioning] coach [Jeff] Connors put me on this little weight plan, weighing in everyday and dropping two pounds per week,” Houston said. “I was taking it slow, and [the change] just came. It wasn’t all about losing weight, it was just that I had a lot of body fat and it was shredding it and getting stronger and toning up more than anything.”
And the hard work is evident – Houston looks like a completely different young man. Last fall, it was humorous watching the mammoth tailback hitting blocking bags held by fellow tailbacks Johnny White and Richie Rich, who combined to weigh less than 400 pounds.
Now, Houston weighs in at 240 pounds, and blends in rather well with the current group of running backs in the Tar Heels’ offensive backfield.
“I was trying to play at 235, but I felt like I was getting knocked around a little bit, so I’m probably going to stay at 240 or 245 because I don’t want to lose too much weight and then lose all of my power,” said Houston, who rushed for 145 yards and one touchdown on 44 carries in 2007.
That’s the weight that Houston played at during his junior season in high school, before a hamstring injury and a lackadaisical approach to his rehab program allowed the sophomore to balloon up to 265 pounds before his senior year.
“I was in high school, so it wasn’t any big deal – I could just run over everybody and still outrun everybody at 270,” Houston said.
But that mindset changed quickly when he stepped into BCS-level locker room, and he has spent the better part of the past nine months on improving his speed and the explosiveness in his first step.
“I think it’s coming along,” Houston said. “I’m not saying that I’m the most explosive or fastest guy out there, but I bring something different to the table. I do feel like I can explode more. I still I can [do better with] getting lower and explode through the hole a little bit quicker.”
In addition to battling his weight last fall, Houston also struggled with learning offensive coordinator John Shoop’s complex offensive scheme. But by dividing his time between the weight room and the film room, Houston feels like he is up to speed in all facets of his game.
“Coach Shoop threw a lot of stuff at us last year, and everything was just scrambled in my brain,” Houston said. “I was just trying to put it together last year. I wasn’t really processing it, I was just trying to take it week by week. But now I know it, so it’s easier to process on the field… Coach Shoop hasn’t slowed down any – he’s still fast-paced – but I know it better and I’m more comfortable with this offense.”
Now all that’s left is to put his hard work on display this fall when the schedule begins on Aug. 30 against McNeese State. Houston is a laid-back individual, and his hopes for the season are quite simple.
“My goal is to score on this field,” Houston said. “I scored [at South Florida] last year, and it wasn’t that big of a deal because nobody cared. I really want to score on this field. I want to see my name on that big screen on that side of the field… I don’t really care about the depth chart, I just really want to help the team out.”