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BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana's Stephen Houston will not dance his way to running back success. Not in this Kevin Wilson-devised offense. Not with bruising Big Ten defenses loaded with the swift and powerful.
And just in case the junior forgets, offensive coordinator Seth Littrell is here to remind him.
“We need effort on every snap from him,” Littrell says. “Make sure he understands he's (220) pounds. He's supposed to be a down-hill, power guy who can stick it up in there and get us tough yards. We need him to do that more. We have to make sure he's consistent on playing every down and not taking any plays off.”
IU coaches are determined to turn this perennially struggling program around -- last year's 1-11 record continues to sting -- and it won't happen with soft and gentle direction. It demands toughness and competitiveness. No position demands more of that than running back.
“The thing is around here,” Littrell says, “if you aren't doing those things, you won't play. You won't play for me. You won't play for Coach Wilson or this team. We need to see more consistency.”
Houston gets the message.
“You just take it, say, 'Yes, sir,' and wait for your next opportunity to go even faster. When you watch the film, the film never lies. If a coach says you're (loafing) or jogging, then he must see that you can go faster, even if you feel you are going as fast as you can.”
Houston rushed for 802 yards and eight touchdowns last season in his Indiana debut after transferring from junior college. More is expected. A thousand-yard season is possible.
Still, Houston takes nothing for granted. The coaches won't let him. Neither will the competition which includes promising freshman Tevin Coleman. Wilson has praised Coleman's practice impact. Houston has gotten that message, as well.
“There's a lot of running back competition,” Houston says. “Nobody's spot is safe. I'm trying to play fast, practice fast and contribute whether it's a lot of reps or the minimum reps a day. I'm trying to make them all work. Hit them fast and do them to the best of my ability.”
One point of emphasis for Houston is a strong start, something that didn't happen last year as he adjusted from junior college. After the first four games, he had 91 rushing yards. In the next eight games, he had 711, including 136 against Big Ten champ Wisconsin, 151 against Northwestern and 129 against Purdue.
As Wilson put it, “Houston showed up (in Bloomington) in July, but he wasn't any good until the end of September.”
What was the difference?
“I wanted to play, so I knew I needed the light bulb to switch on,” Houston says. “It kicked on kind of late. I'm trying to keep it on.”
That means playing to his speed-and-power strengths. He can bang inside for tough yards or bolt outside for big plays.
“It depends on the play, the down and distance about what I'll do,” he says. “If it's third and 2, I might not take many risks and try to bounce it to outside. Just stick my nose in there. Maybe if it's first and 5, I might try to give up some room (by going outside) to try to make a big play. I try to read the defense, and take what they give me.”
No position takes as much of a pounding as running back. Houston embraces that.
“I like contact. Sometimes you get tired of taking a pounding, but it comes with the job.
“You've got to swallow your pride. Hey, we just ran this play. I just scored ,but we've got to do it again. Let's line up and run it down their throats again.”
The defense has other ideas, which often means sending big, powerful linebackers to stuff the run.
“Whoever steps in the hole,” Houston says, “I treat them the same whether they're big, small or in between. As soon as I see them flashing in there, it's like an automatic car. You get to a certain gear. When I see contact coming, I shift lower and give them more of pads.”
Wilson wants to pass more, and if that means a lighter load for the running backs, Houston is ready to maximize his attempts.
“When we get the ball, just run. It's a privilege to play this game, be on the field and get the ball. We won't take it for granted whether we get one snap a quarter, or two in a minute. Once the ball is in our hands, we're going to make something happen.”
Just in case he forgets, Littrell and the rest of the coaches provide reminders. Motivation, like effort, is never ending.
“You go hard in practice all the time,” Littrell says. “You play how you practice. Everybody doesn't grasp that concept. I'm not calling anybody out. There are some guys on our team who haven't completely figured that out and some who have. I'll leave it at that. Those guys know they need to step up the way they practice and the way they compete in practice because if they don't, there are a lot of good young players and they won't see the field.”