North Carolina has been looking for production from its tailback position ever since Butch Davis arrived on campus nearly 22 months ago, and the past two weekends have provided arguably the greatest reason for hope yet. Greg Little, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston struggled to find consistency and a rhythm with the offensive line in the first three games of the season, totaling just 283 total rushing yards.
The Tar Heel triumvirate finally began to adapt to their roles last Saturday against Miami, with Little and Draughn splitting snaps as the feature back, while Houston assumed the short-yardage option. They gained 79 yards on 26 carries against a stout Hurricane defense, before exploding for 154 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns against Connecticut.
In a not-so-unexpected turn of events, Draughn saw the majority of the action for the first time this season, tallying 109 yards on 19 carries for a 5.7 yards per carry average – UNC's first tailback to eclipse the 100-yard mark in 2008.
Little started against the Huskies, but saw minimal playing time, gaining just six yards on three rushes. Davis attributed Draughn's primary role on Saturday to going with the player that was making plays.
"Somewhat like the way in which the quarterback situation went against Miami, [Draughn] got in, he got hot and he made some runs," Davis told reporters during his Sunday night teleconference.
And although Houston only ran the ball three times, his 39 yards and touchdown were exactly what the offense needed.
"[Houston] did his job spectacularly," Davis said. "He went in on a 3rd-and-1, and he made three [yards]. He went in on a goal line situation and scored a touchdown, and he went in on a four-minute offense type of deal and popped off a 35-yard run."
But even with Draughn's performance against the Huskies, be sure that you don't write off Little too soon from the running back conversation.
"As I've said, I completely believe that we need all three of these guys," Davis said. "We need them to challenge each other and to push each other to continue to get better. And as they get better, hopefully our running game will continue to improve."
One offensive line change that was hinted at behind the scenes last week was starting center Aaron Stahl's return to left guard, where the red-shirt junior started all 12 games in 2007. Lowell Dyer started six games at center – playing 267 offensive snaps – last season in place of the oft-injured Scott Lenahan, and he earned his first start this fall against UConn.
Davis indicated that Stahl did not start at center due to having two wisdom teeth removed earlier in the week. But while that may explain Dyer's start at center, it doesn't explain Stahl's move back to left guard, where Alan Pelc and Bryon Bishop have battled for playing time since training camp.
Regardless, the shakeup seemed to pay dividends on national television against a ranked opponent.
"One of the things that I like about Aaron is his versatility," Davis said. "He can play guard and he can play center, so it worked out good for us this weekend."
With the 38-12 dismantling of then-No. 23 UConn, the Tar Heels vaulted into the AP Poll at No. 22 – their first national ranking since 2001. An improving rushing attack will only serve to help North Carolina remain in the polls as the season wears along, but Davis made clear his opinions on Sunday of what the ranking actually means.
"It truly doesn't matter – the season isn't over," Davis said. "We've got a lot of the regular season [to go], and we clearly haven't accomplished the goals that we set out at the beginning of the season. I don't think they give any trophies for Week 5 rankings."