When Cedric Houston lines up at tailback this fall, the 6-foot, 215-pound senior will be looking to finish his career the way he started his junior season. In Tennessee?s first two games last year Houston ran for 321 yards on 45 carries, showcasing the bruising style that had made him one of the country?s top high school backs in 2001. His breakout season, however, was waylaid by nagging hip and ankle injuries and the Volunteers? increasing reliance on quarterback Casey Clausen to move the offense. Over the last 11 games, of which he played in all or part of 10, Houston produced only 423 yards on 104 carries. ?I thought the rest of the year was going to be like the first two games,? he says. ?Then we started throwing a lot more.?
Clausen, a four-year starter who finished as the second most prolific passer in school history, behind Peyton Manning, led Tennessee to a 10?3 record. However, the lapses in the running game, plus the need to go to the pass early in some games and more frequently, upset the balance of coach Phillip Fulmer?s multiple offense. The Vols had a 100-yard rusher in only three games, and for the second straight season Houston was the team?s leading ball carrier with less than 800 yards. After the season Fulmer brought in a new running backs coach, Trooper Taylor from Tulane. ?Coming in, all I heard was that the backs were a disappointment,? says Taylor, whose tutoring tools include videotape of former Tennessee standout backs such as Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis. ?Cedric?s going to do so much better this year. He likes to be challenged.?
That?s good news for the Volunteers, who will be breaking in a new quarterback. (Fifth-year senior C.J. Leak has the edge over junior Rick Clausen, Casey?s brother.) ?There?s no doubt we?ll have to rely on the running game more,? says offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. ?With injuries and the tough defenses we faced last year, I think Cedric never got back in the groove. At the midpoint of the season he was getting tackled way too many times by one man.?
The prospect of carrying the offense this year has Houston fired up. He needs 1,450 yards to surpass Henry as the school?s alltime leading rusher, and with 6'6", 315-pound senior tackle Michael Mu�oz leading an experienced offensive line, the mark isn?t beyond his reach. ?The only way to simplify the offense is to run,? he says. ?I don?t mind carrying 30 to 35 times a game. The way I look at it, it?s in my hands this year.? --M.B.