This was a very important spring season for Ryan Houston.
Coming off last year's redshirt season and not playing in an actual game since 2009, Houston was in position to solidify his place at the top of North Carolina's depth chart at running back.
Indeed, Houston found himself with the first team at tailback when the Tar Heels took the field in this past Saturday's Spring Game.
"It feels great. It's an unbelievable feeling. I've been wanting to get on the field and play with my boys for a long time. And just finally to get out there is just an incredible feeling," said Houston immediately afterwards.
This was before Houston learned that he was going to require surgery for a fractured scapula (shoulder blade) he suffered on one of the plays during Saturday's scrimmage.
At the time, Houston or head coach Butch Davis didn't think anything of it.
In fact, they briefly considered putting him back in the scrimmage after he initially came out.
"It's just a bruise. I'm fine. If it was a game I would have went back in there, but they just held me out of there for precautionary reasons," said Houston.
"He (Houston) got hit on the shoulder and it was a little bit of a stinger," said Davis.
"They (the UNC trainers) said, 'Give it five or ten minutes and he could probably come back (in the scrimmage),' and I said,' He doesn't need to. We've seen all of him that we need to see.'"
Up until that point, Houston had taken only two carries but had amassed 22 yards, including a nice 16-yarder.
"I think the one run that he did get hit today, you saw it. He's got a lot more burst and a lot more explosion at or near the line of scrimmage," said Davis.
"Yeah, it was all right," Houston said modestly about his long run, drawing a couple of laughs from media members.
After three years of being UNC's top option around the goal line and on short-yardage and third down situations, there was ample opportunity for Houston to step up and become the Tar Heels' every-down option in the offensive backfield this spring with the Tar Heels losing its top three running backs from the 2010 season (Johnny White, Anthony Elzy, and Shaun Draughn).
"In previous seasons we always envisioned him (Houston) as kind of the guy that was just the strong, powerful runner that can move the pile---great in short-yardage and goal line," said Davis.
"Now he wants to be an every-down back. He doesn't want to be a guy that's just relegated to unique, special situations. And he can still do that (the short-yardage stuff)."
In order to be an every-down back, Houston knew he needed to reshape his body.
So over the past year, while he was off the playing field, he worked intensely on his body and shed considerable weight.
"I think he's gone from 255, 258 (pounds), maybe even close to 260 down to the high 230's. And I think it's really helped him," said Davis.
"I feel like every time I break it to the next level I feel I can score now," Houston said.
"Before that (when I was 270), I could sense somebody grabbing for my legs or somebody was about to grab me from behind. But now when I look at myself on film, and I say, 'Okay, my feet are moving a lot quicker than they were two years ago.'"
"So I feel like if I can keep working, I just get better and better at that," he continued.
"Very much so (he has changed his body)," Davis added about Houston. "And he did it last year prior to the start of last season. Because he really knew that for endurances sake, for speed, quickness (he had to trim up).
Another area where Houston improved this spring before his shoulder injury was in making things happen in the passing game---catching the ball, blocking out of the backfield, or making precision fakes in play-action.
"I think Ryan has picked up where everybody assumed that he would," said Davis.
"He's very, very strong and powerful. He's looked good in our scrimmages. He's catching the ball. If there's one thing he may be doing better now than any time (before) is his catches out of the backfield. He's worked hard on catching the ball out of the backfield. He's done a really good job."
"When we scrimmage, play-action is a huge part of our game. We have a great defense, and sometimes we can still hit big play-action passes on our defense," said offensive tackle James Hurst. "That's a big thing I've noticed this spring just from the practices."
"Obviously the running game is going to open up the passing game. And I think that's what we're going to do and I think we're going to be able to do it with a guy like Ryan back there," Hurst added.
For one North Carolina player, getting to practice on the same field with Houston this spring brought back some childhood memories.
"This guy, I watched him when he was in high school and I was in middle school," said quarterback Marquise Williams, who attended some of those classic high school games between Charlotte Independence and Matthews Butler in the middle of last decade.
"I used to watch how he ran over people. It's just a great pleasure to play with him and see how he totes the ball and runs over people just like he's a bulldozer," Williams added.
It was obviously a major frustration for Houston to have missed what would have been his senior season in 2010.
After missing all that spring for academic reasons, Houston got caught up in the investigation and would up missing five games before being cleared.
"It was real frustrating, especially not going to the Chick-Fil-A kickoff. I wanted to play so bad," Houston said.
"Trying to just prepare, it's hard to go week-to-week not knowing what's going on, and they're telling you one thing and nothing's happening. I was just ready if they were to call me. It's just frustrating."
Although he was cleared prior to Carolina's midseason game against Virginia, the UNC staff elected to redshirt Houston, knowing full well that they'd very much need him in 2011.
Houston is happy about the way things worked out, his shoulder injury notwithstanding, and is hopeful that he'll have full senior season on the gridiron this coming fall.
"I'm glad I went through that process, because it's making me hungrier for this year," he said.
As he worked through this spring season, Houston was the head honcho in a group of backs that included Hunter Furr, youngsters Travis Riley and Giovani Bernard, and walk-on Matt Kolojejchick.
"I'm kind of the head dude in front. Not just I'm the number one running back, but just older-wise. So I feel like I've got to teach them and it's kind of a reverse role," Houston said.
Although he's going to be out of commission for a few months as he recovers from Thursday's surgery at UNC Hospitals, the one silver lining for Houston is that he's going to have approximately four months to recover before the Tar Heels strap on the pads in August's training camp.
He's staying optimistic and keeping a positive attitude about everything.
"I've been waiting on this a long time, and then just to get cut short, it's just devastating. You have no idea," Houston said. "But I just thought in four more months we strap it on in Kenan Stadium, so I'm just waiting for that."
His number one goal remains to break North Carolina's 13-season long streak of not having a 1,000 yard running back.
For a school that at one time set the national standard for 1,000-yard backs, reaching that pinnacle in his final UNC season---especially coming off the shoulder setback---would be quite an incredible way for Houston to go out.
"Yes, it would definitely be worth it all (to reach 1,000 yards)," Houston said. "That's my number one goal is to get 1,000 yards."