CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Ryan Houston figures slimming down won't stop him from being the battering ram in North Carolina's ground attack.
Three years after arriving on campus as a 273-pound freshman, Houston is down almost 40 pounds entering his senior season. He's been a proven goal-line option and a lead ball carrier capable of wearing down defenses, and coach Butch Davis has said Houston is off to his best training camp with the No. 18 Tar Heels.
"I think he's found that ... every year he's gotten lighter, he's gotten stronger, he's gotten quicker, he's gotten more explosive," Davis said. "Last year he found that when the load was on his shoulders the second half of the season, that even being a little more fit and a little quicker would have served him a little better.
"You have to respect guys that recognize areas where they should try to get better."
Houston missed spring workouts at Davis' suggestion so that he could focus on academics — he said he was still eligible — as well as the birth of a daughter in October. But even though he didn't work out with the team, he studied film and kept working in the weight room to stay in shape.
After playing last year around 245 pounds, he's down to around 236 in training camp.
"I watched a lot of film, especially on me, and how I hit the hole ... and I see how other people hit the whole — smaller backs and how they explode through the hole," Houston said. "When I see the hole, I try to give it everything I've got and it shows on film."
Houston has been the finisher for the Tar Heels, rushing for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons. The longest of those runs has been 7 yards, while nine of those scores have come from 1 yard out. But when starting tailback Shaun Draughn was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Houston also proved he could take over the lead role — most notably with a 37-carry, 164-yard performance in a win against Duke.
He started the final four games and had at least 17 carries each time. And even when he met defenders at the line, he often moved the pile enough to keep the Tar Heels pushing forward.
He missed much of last week's workouts after he banged his head on the turf while falling on a carry, but Houston is likely to resume the goal-line and short-yardage duties this season while splitting carries with a now-healthy Draughn and Johnny White.
"He's the kind of guy that he wears the defense down more than they wear him down," running backs coach Ken Browning said. "Probably the one thing people would say about him, he doesn't give you maybe the threat of a big play in terms of long runs and the speed standpoint. But he's consistent. He's an efficient runner. He doesn't miss many holes."
Houston said he played at around 250 pounds during his high school career at Butler High School in Matthews, located just outside of Charlotte. But a hamstring injury his senior year kept him from playing basketball or running track, where he was a sprinter, high jumper and competed in the shot put.
As a result, it was hard for him to work off the extra weight before his freshman year, when he played in seven games as a doughy rookie.
That guy seems long gone now.
"You can tell when he takes his shirt off," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "He's more cut, lean, ripped up and more muscular. He's definitely taking care of his body. ... He's definitely the guy we're going to on the goal line. He's our guy that's going to knock it in and everybody knows that."