IU's Houston looks to build off solid debut

Stephen Houston had a pretty impressive rookie campaign for Indiana. Except that neither he nor his head coach was all that impressed with it.

Houston took over the starting running back duties for the Hoosiers and finished with 802 yards, eight touchdowns and a 5.3 yard per carry average. That was the most rushing yards by an IU player since BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 938 in 2003.

But Houston is more interested this spring in talking about ways he can improve.

"I was blessed to play last year, and it was decent," he said. "But I'm trying to better my skills. I want to get my shoulders down, get a faster step and get quicker off the ball."

This is the first spring where Houston has had a chance to work on his game. He didn't arrive in Bloomington until late last summer and was quickly thrown into the fire as the Hoosiers dealt with several injuries at the running back position.

"He had a nice year, but it was really just average at best," head coach Kevin Wilson said. "He showed up here late and didn't really get flowing until game four. He had to play himself into shape and learn our system.

"That doesn't mean he didn't have a nice first year, because he did. But for us to have the kind of year we need to have offensively, we need him to come through in a big-time way."

Houston never thought he'd wind up at Indiana, but after a circuitous route, he feels like he has found a home.

He grew up in Arkansas, then moved to Ohio with his mother late in his prep career, playing for Lakota West High School. He committed to play for Ole Miss but didn't make the necessary grades, so headed to Independence (Kan.) Community College. After a redshirt season, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards there in 2010.

Last February, Houston signed with North Carolina. But in May, the Tar Heels told him he would not be admitted to school. So Houston was left looking for a place to go at a time when most programs have accounted for all their scholarships in the upcoming year.

"A few schools called me here and there," he said. "Some of them wanted me to play a different position, which I wasn't comfortable with. Some wanted me to walk on. But deep down, I felt I wasn't a walk-on player."

Houston visited Indiana, which told him he would have a scholarship if he could pass a calculus course at his junior college. So Houston went back to Independence.

"And I got an A," he said.

He gives the Hoosiers a nice blend of size and speed with his 6-foot, 223-pound body. Houston aims to use his power more effectively this season.

"I'm focusing on becoming more aggressive with my run flow," he said. "I feel I was kind of passive at times last year and let defenders off the hook. But that's about to change."

With a full offseason of conditioning and preparation and more knowledge of the system, Houston could make a run at 1,000 yards this season, something no Indiana player has done since Levron Williams ran for 1,401 in 2001. But IU also has more depth in the backfield with a healthy Matt Perez, D'Angelo Roberts and transfer Isaiah Roundtree all competing for carries this spring.

"There's competition all around, and I'm just stepping up to the challenge," Houston said. "I know if I slip up, I could be gone just like that.

"Getting 1,000 yards is my goal, but mostly I just want to run hard every play no matter the outcome. If I do that, the yards were come."

And if he does that, his second season as a Hoosier could be really impressive.