CHAPEL HILL — Some tailbacks set goals of reaching 1,000 yards. Or carrying the ball 20 times a game. Or making the all-conference team.
But this season, North Carolina running back Ryan Houston's aim is a little more simple.
"I just want to get in the end zone a couple fo times, for real,'' said the sophomore from Matthews. "I want my whole name to be up there,'' he added, pointing to the massive Kenan Stadium videoboard.
The only time Houston scored last season was last September at South Florida, when he rumbled in from 5 yards out. In all, he carried 44 times for 145 yards in the Tar Heels' inconsistent tailback-by-committee rotation. And although he was the most powerful of the backs, his girth sometimes slowed him down.
"Last year, I'd see the hole, and I'd try to get to it and explode, but 270, it's hard to move that,'' said Houston, who stands 6 feet 2 inches.
So during the offseason, he worked on moving more — committing to a conditioning program in which he hit the weight room hard, drank more water, ate more fruits and veggies, didn't snack past 8 or 9 p.m.
"Ryan's probably actually eating more than he did at any time last year, he's just eating smarter,'' head coach Butch Davis said.
The result: after coming to camp at 273 pounds last summer, he's down to about 241. Yet he's stronger, more agile, and says he boasts better endurance and balance.
"I feel like I'm more explosive, now that I'm not at 273 no more,'' Houston said. "It's easier to go more vertical, hit the hole more explosively, quicker, so I feel like it's better."
He looks it. At a recent practice, the slimmer Houston appeared more confident on his first step and faster on his second and third. Yet he also seems to have kept his power — making for a key change-up while backing up with elisuve No. 1 tailback Greg Little.
Penciled in at No. 2 on the depth chart after spring practice, Houston said that while the two friends are competing for carries, they are also encouraging each other. Because they want to win.
"I dont' really care about who's going to start the game, because every game I'm going to play, every game Greg's going to play. ... I just believe we're both going to produce,'' Houston said.
They need too. Davis on Tuesday again stressed the importance of having more than one running back to carry the load. Although he's 32 pounds lighter, Houston appears ready to carry more.
"I've just got a feeling he's going to be a significantly better player, not just because of the weight, but because the work ethic is one of the things I wanted him to get better at,'' running backs coach Kenny Browning said before fall practice began. " ... He'll be able to play lower because of [his weight]. And if he plays with great pad level, he is a hard man to tackle."
Especially on his way to reaching his goals — in the Kenan Stadium end zones.