by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- Height, hands and speed have all helped North Carolina wide receiver Bug Howard become a red zone threat this season.
But peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have helped, too. And energy shakes. And stuffing - great big bowls of stuffing.
Besides all the work he's put in learning the playbook, running routes and pumping weights, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound freshman from Georgia - who quarterback Marquise Williams said "came in looking like a stick" -- has also been focusing on trying to build up his twiggy frame.
For an athlete with his size and metabolism, that means trying to consume 5,000 calories a day during the season. And at times, that seems just as challenging as the prospect of trying to outmaneuver double-coverage in the end zone.
"Every day, it's hard. Because sometimes you're like, 'I don't want to eat! I'm not hungry!''' Howard said, grinning. "But you've got to just keep doing it, if you want to get to that weight, if you want to gain that strength."
Mary Ellen Bingham, UNC's head nutritionist, said one of the most difficult parts of putting on pounds for a freshman like Howard is scheduling. Not only do players have a full class load, practice, games, meetings and study halls - but in high school, they were used to eating on the go. And not paying too much attention to the when and what they digested.
"I've never been a breakfast guy,'' Howard said, for example. "Now, I have to try to be."
That's because Bingham and the staff suggest he eat six times at day (breakfast-snack-lunch-snack-dinner-snack). On a typical Tuesday or Thursday, when workouts begin at 6:30 a.m., Howard said that typically means a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and nutritional shake on the way to the field; two shakes and a snack (like another PB & J) on his way back to the room; a trip to the dining hall for a Chick-fil-A sandwich (or two) for lunch; a snack (like trail mix), on the way to a second class; a big post-practice dinner (which almost always includes his favorite food: stuffing); and one more snack (peanut butter sandwich, maybe?) before bed.
"He tries to stack up on the burgers and all the steaks and stuff - but I tell him he's still skinny,'' Williams said. "But he's doing all right."
The training table's colored-dot system - where foods are coded with six different labels, including the highest-calorie choices of "hard-gainers" like Howard - helps. So does the "fueling station" in the weight room, where players can pick up shakes, nuts, trail mix and water all day to take with them for between-meal nibbles.
And then there's Bingham, herself. She works, along with UNC's sports medicine staff, to promote good nutrition and provide diet guidance for gaining, losing or maintaining muscle. Some athletes who need a little more help, like Howard, she meets with individually. Other players she checks up on routinely at meal time, noting what's on their plates and reminding them to keep on snackin'.
"Bug really has done a great job of maintaining his weight through the season, and that's not always easy to do,'' Bingham said.
And Howard has felt the results.
After summer conditioning, he said he weighed in at about 183 pounds. He's now a dozen pounds heavier. And the increased strength, he said, has been key in the end zone.
All four of his touchdown grabs this season have come in the red zone, including Saturday's 10- and 17-yard scoring catches in the win against Boston College. They were important points for the Tar Heels, who had scored just 10 touchdowns in 19 trips to the red zone previously. It also was a continued confidence boost for Howard, a former star baseball player who recorded 1,630 receiving yards at Wilcox County High last season.
"Pretty much, I feel like that's my role with this team, to score in the red zone,'' he said. "Inside the 20, I can do what I do best - go up and get the ball, wherever it's at. ... And getting bigger and stronger is only going to help me with that."
In all, Howard has grabbed 12 catches for 133 yards this season. So far.
"You can put the ball anywhere in there and feel like he can come down with it, which he's been doing,'' Williams said. "...I love the guy because he's a big target."
And, Howard hopes, getting bigger.
The freshman said his goal is to keep gaining, reach 200 pounds by the end of the season, and weigh in between 215 and 220 by the time he's a junior.
It may mean consuming a lot more peanut butter sandwiches. And steaks. And stuffing. But, he said, it will be worth it every time he can outmuscle a DB for a big catch, and put his team in a position to win.
"It's not always easy,'' he said of his eat-eat-then-eat-some-more diet. "But I think I'm on track."