Following the graduation of the three leading rushers from 2010, North Carolina’s running game is in question heading into this season, but veteran Ryan Houston is working hard this spring to be the answer. Houston is back for his fifth season and led the team in rushing in 2009, but he missed the first five games of the 2010 season because of the NCAA investigation. He was eventually cleared to play, but instead of playing half a season, Houston decided to redshirt and return for the full 2011 season. Houston rushed for 713 yards in 2009. I caught up with him recently to talk about his role for this season. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
How tough was last season on you?
Ryan Houston: “It was really difficult sitting out those games, and just seeing my team trying to move forward without me. It was very difficult to watch, especially when I was finally able to go to the games. It was hectic to be on the sidelines. I loved cheering my teammates on, but it was hard for me to look on and see my brothers, my teammates out there, trying to fight without me.
How much of a question was it really whether or not to redshirt and try and get that extra year of eligibility, and what was your thought process?
RH: It was a tough decision, because as soon as I got the info I was ready to play, was good to play, I wanted to play right then. The one thing on my mind was help our team, let’s go, let’s turn it around, let’s do this, let’s do that. But then I started thinking about the long run, and about how the running game was alright and they didn’t need me right then. I just kind of laid back, still practiced hard and gave the defense some good looks. I stayed in the film room, kept lifting weights and got bigger, faster and stronger.
Previously you were used as more of a short-yardage back. How do you expect that role to change? I would assume you have to carry more of the load, right?
RH: Yes. In 2009, me and Shaun (Draughn) split the time, but I was mainly still the short-yardage back. In the Duke game (Draughn) got hurt and had to step into the role as the main guy. I feel like it will be sort of like that. I feel like I handled myself pretty well. I was thrown into the fire at first but I did a good job of preparation so I handled myself very well. Now I’ve got more time, I’ve got spring ball ahead of me to get my place right and smarter on the field. I feel like that role will probably change a little back, but I still think I’ll be in there for the short yardage.
And how much are you looking forward to that new role and responsibility of being the guy?
RH: I’m looking forward. I’m doing the extra things to get better than normally I used to do. I always watched film on running, but now I’m trying to get the defenses right, I’m trying to know what’s going on on the defensive side of the ball to make me a better running back.
Overall, with the running game, how much do you feel like it has to be better because you’re going to have a new quarterback and I would assume you want to help take some pressure off of him?
RH: I feel like that’s my No. 1 goal. Bryn Renner, that’s my home boy. I don’t want him going into his first year as a starting quarterback feeling like he’s got to take the whole team on his shoulders. With an experienced running back like me and Hunter (Furr), and an experienced O-line, I feel like we can take that pressure off of him, get him easy throws, make him comfortable in the pocket and just take care of him.
What do you think the big picture is and the general outlook for Carolina? I don’t know what to think of you guys to be honest. With a new quarterback and new faces in several places, what do you think you guys are capable of?
RH: I feel like we’re going to turn a lot of heads. A lot of people don’t know what Carolina can do this year. They know that Bryn is a good quarterback, but they’ve never really seen him. They know that I played two years ago, but they don’t know am I in shape? Can he carry the load? I can’t wait to go out there, try our best, put our right foot forward and try and win some ball games.