CHAPEL HILL — Ryan Houston has been limited to noncontact drills all training camp because of offseason shoulder surgery, but North Carolina's redshirt senior tailback has insisted all month he would be ready for the opener against James Madison.
Houston apparently will be proven right Saturday, earning the starting nod Monday.
Interim coach Everett Withers said Houston, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound bruiser from Charlotte, earned the opening nod because of his experience; both Houston and redshirt freshman backup Gio Bernard (hand injury) will strip off their orange don't-hit-me jerseys this week and return to contact drills.
"We like to (think) that we start three tailbacks - one guy just has to take the first snap," Withers said. "But we like to consider Ryan and Gio and A.J. (Blue) as guys that are going to play a lot at tailback for us."
Houston, who broke his right scapula during the spring game, was not available for interviews Monday. But earlier this month, he said he was extra eager to build on the career-best 713 yards and nine touchdowns he recorded in 2009 - especially because he didn't play last season.
After sitting out the first five games of 2010 as the NCAA investigated the football program for academic misconduct and impermissible benefits, Houston was cleared but opted to redshirt.
"It was real hard, especially during the bowl game, on the 1-yard line, screaming like, 'Forget it, I don't care, I just want to help my team,' " he said this month.
"But now ... it just makes me hungrier for this year."
He said he holds no resentment about having to sit out those five games.
"No, they did what they had to do, and I applaud the university for getting my back and trying to help, and doing the best things possible for me, and I feel like they made a good decision," he said.
"They didn't know what was going on, I didn't know what was going on, and I feel like they made a great decision."
As difficult as it was for Houston to watch from the sidelines last season, his decision to redshirt is a boon for a team short on backfield experience.
Last year's leading rushers - Johnny White, Shaun Draughn and Anthony Elzy - exhausted their eligibility, and junior Hunter Furr opted to transfer to East Carolina before training camp.
That leaves Bernard and Blue - who both sat out last season with knee injuries - as Houston's backups.
And that makes his bulk and knowledge key, even if he has yet to take a hit in practice this season.
"I think he's one of the biggest factors we can have for this year, having his presence back there," sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner said. "He's played in big-time games, which helps me out, because I'm a new starter, and I'm really going to lean on him sometimes - just give him the ball on a third-and-3, and know he's going to get 6, just because he's so powerful.
"The work he's ... put in for this season, I'm just excited to see the great showing he's going to have on Saturday and the whole rest of the year."
Briefly: Offensive lineman Cam Holland, kicker Casey Barth and linebacker Kevin Reddick were named captains for the season.
A fourth will be chosen each week.
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