Houston in battle for top RB spot

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   The task is simple for Cedric Houston. Beat out three other ex-high school All-American running backs and you're handed the job of starting tailback at the University of Tennessee.
   Oh, there's one last catch. If you win the job, you get to replace Travis Stephens, an All-American who just recorded the single best rushing season in Tennessee football history.
   "It's fun at times and it's intense at times," said Houston, a sophomore, about the fight for the starting spot. "It's mostly fun. We know all of us will get a chance. We understand it. You probably can't see it from the outside, but we are all competiting.
   "We all want the opportunity. Hopefully I can be the same type of running back as Travis. If I get the carries, I can do it."
   The footsteps that Stephens leaves runs deep. The Clarksville native ran for 1464 yards last season, including 226 yards in the marquee game of the season against Florida. Stephens was rewarded by being picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Houston's reward will be sharing playing time with Jabari Davis and Derrick Tinsley.
   All three players are listed at 6-0, with Houston weighing in at 210 pounds. Davis is a more bruising type runner at 232 pounds, who should also see some time at fullback. Tinsley shows a physical resemblance to Stephens at a solid 195 pounds, while freshman Keldrick Williams is trying to add his name to the mix.
   "Cedric Houston will be an important part of what we do along with Jabari Davis and Derrick Tinsley," stated UT head football coach Phillip Fulmer about filling the void of Stephens. "Every time we turned around, Keldrick Williams was making yards in the spring."
   Houston, listed as one of the top 25 prep players in the country coming out of Clarendon (Ark.) High School in 2000, saw limited action his first year as a Volunteer. He only carried the ball 18 times. But, in that small amount of playing time, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry, including a 20-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt.
   The Vanderbilt game was the showcase game in Houston's freshman season with five carries for 54 yards. He also broke free on another 20-yard run against in-state foe Memphis.
   "I know we're going to be sharing a lot of time this year," said Houston. "I just want the carries and the quality time. I think we will start out sharing time and by week four, we should have a starter by then."
   In the recent Orange and White game, Houston had eight rushes for 32 yards and also hauled in 3 catches for 13 yards. With the screen pass a staple of the UT offense, Houston knows his ability as a receiver is a must.
   "I can catch, they just never throw to me," commented Houston. "I caught those passes in the spring game. That shows I can catch."
   Houston should benefit from playing with fullback Troy Fleming this season. Fleming is a fullback in the mold of Shawn Bryson from the Vols' 1998 National Championship game, both a skilled blocker and a dangerous runner.
   "It puts pressure on us, because he's good enough to be a tailback," said Houston. "He's our most experienced fullback, but he has the skills to play tailback."
   Other blockers, who should pave the way for running lanes, include Elizabethton product Jason Witten, coming off a tremendous season at tight end. Although Houston's primary focus is on the offense, he sees promise on the other line of scrimmage.
   "They're tackling better than last year," said Houston about the Vols' defense. "They wrap up tackle this year and that's pretty good. They're scrapping and they have some speed. They can run some backs down if they want to."
   A matchup with defending National Champion Miami highlights the 2002 Big Orange schedule. "Man, they are going to be a handful," said Houston. "We're just going to have to go out there and play hard to come out on top. It's going to be like another championship game. We both have ideas of being in the top ten when we play."
   The teams almost met last season in the Rose Bowl until the Vols stubbed their toes against LSU in the SEC Championship game. "Most of the guys coming back from last season are very serious," said Houston. "They want to play and win that game. We been working really hard to get back to that point."
   A loss to Georgia for a season straight season also was painful, especially losing the game on a last-minute drive where the 'Dawgs marched down the field to win 26-24. "That hurts," admitted Houston. "I thought we had it won. I just had a gut feeling, that no they ain't going to score. Actually Jabari was madder than me about the loss. Jabari being from Georgia, he was mad."
   Turning to prognosticator, Houston looks at the Bulldogs as the main hurdle the Vols must cross to win a division title this year. "Florida always has good players," said Houston. "But, Spurrier always ran things with the team. He's pretty much a genius calling plays. I think Georgia is the team we have to beat to win the East."