Slimmed-down Antwain Littleton II is a touchdown machine

Before barreling down the field, leaping over linemen and developing this scoring habit, Antwain Littleton II had to change. The young running back nicknamed Baby Bus leans on his power and physicality; that’s why defenders have such a hard time tackling him to the ground and how he manages to fall forward, past the first-down marker, for an extra few yards. But all these touchdown runs have roots that stretch back to over a year ago when Littleton decided to transform his body and committed to see it through.

If he hadn’t done so, “I’d probably still be on scout team trying to prove to the coaches that I could play or even be a running back in college,” Littleton said.

The Maryland redshirt freshman has shown he can excel at this position, reinforcing that belief each time he plows into the end zone. He arrived in College Park at 299 pounds and couldn’t pass the return-to-campus conditioning test. This season, he’s playing at around 240 pounds after overhauling his habits and revamping his mind-set.

The reward has come in the end zone: As the Terps (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) surge through their strong start to the season, Littleton has scored six times in five games, picking up nearly seven yards per carry — a mark boosted by a handful of explosive runs. He also scored in last season’s bowl game, giving him the longest active streak of rushing touchdowns in the Football Bowl Subdivision, according to Maryland, and he could extend it Saturday at home against Purdue.

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There’s no question now: He’s a running back — a dynamic and dependable Big Ten running back.

When Littleton enrolled at Maryland in the summer of 2021, he knew he’d need to work on his nutrition and conditioning, even though he never expected this radical of a change. The coronavirus pandemic upended his normal routine and activity, especially because his younger brother has asthma so his mom wanted the family to be careful not to contract the virus that can particularly effect people with respiratory issues. Littleton only played one game in a shortened spring season his senior year, so he had hardly spent time in shoulder pads as he prepared to begin his Maryland career.

“Before I came to college,” Littleton said, “I was very lazy.”

He played video games, binge-watched TV shows and snacked while hanging out with his dog, Seven. Like most high-schoolers, he had heard of the food pyramid, “but it’s never anything that you really paid attention to,” he said. Littleton loved sugary drinks, especially apple juice and fruit punch, and he’d have pizza a couple times a week: “Almost a whole box,” he said, describing his preferred pie as one with “chicken, bacon, spinach, things like that,” rather than “a bland pizza with just one topping.”

Littleton had always been a big, strong running back, playing at St. John’s College High at around 260 pounds, but his health deteriorated during that pandemic-altered senior year, just before he headed to Maryland.

Ryan Davis, the director of football strength and conditioning, “did nothing but keep it real for me from the start,” Littleton said. “He basically was telling me, ‘At this weight, at this level, you won’t be able to sustain the workouts or the practices.’”

So Littleton went straight to Lauren Antle, the director of football nutrition. She remembers Littleton, a freshman at the time, saying: “I want to get on top of this. I want to change. I know I came in lifting than everyone thought.” His desire to improve, she said, became the root of his success.

Before Maryland players are cleared to participate in team runs, they have to meet a certain threshold, determined by their position, on the PACER test — something that “98 percent of our team can come in the first day and they can do it in their sleep,” Davis said. After Jordan McNair died in 2018 from suffering a heatstroke during a summer conditioning workout, Maryland players take this test indoors after extended breaks away from campus, because if a player doesn’t pass, Davis said, it wouldn’t be safe for him to run with the others.

Littleton kept trying to pass every day — “one of the worst things I probably went through, because it’s a real mental thing,” he said. When he finally reached the benchmark for running backs, he felt relief and wanted to cry. He called his mom, overjoyed he could participate in the full team workouts.

Davis focused on micro-level goals with Littleton. First: Pass the PACER test. Then: Develop consistency. Davis could tell the running back had a high upside because he didn’t have a history of regimented strength training. But for a while, when Littleton still clung to those inactive weekends on the couch, “I was like the bad guy chasing him around,” Davis said.

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Eventually, Littleton settled into a groove. He never considered changing positions and instead remained devoted to changing himself. Antle, who plans all of the team meals, is often available in the cafeteria and always reachable via text or FaceTime. Littleton asked her constantly: “What do you think I should eat for breakfast today?” And then he’d do the same for lunch and dinner.

“It was a very constant communication cycle,” said Antle, who focuses on guiding players through decisions so they can learn what foods make them feel and perform their best.

Littleton practiced with the scout team throughout the last season, appearing in just two games. When he scored in the Pinstripe Bowl, he was around 260 pounds and already months into the slow transformation process. After that season, when he knew he’d have a chance to grab a larger role, he dialed in on his mission.

The staffers who accompanied Littleton on this path shift all credit to the player. He decided he wanted to be a Power Five running back, and he turned into someone who would pop into Davis’s office to say hello early in the mornings. Davis thinks Littleton wanted to make sure his coach knew he had arrived early. Rarely does a player go through a change of this magnitude. It took a year, but that’s how he managed to lose the weight — and maintain his muscle — in a healthy way.

“I just never want him to forget how hard it was and how well he did it and how well he handled it,” Antle said. “I try to tell him that I’m proud of him all the time.”

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This season, Littleton is working to replenish his body properly after practices so he can maintain his weight. He loves watermelon and knows it helps him stay hydrated, and if he has pizza, “I can’t even eat past three big slices.” The box sits in his refrigerator for the next couple days. He talks about the benefits of stretching and how abandoning his “lazy habit” improved his mental state and his academic performance. When he returned to campus in the winter and again in the summer, he had no problem with the conditioning test.

Littleton embraces a phrase he adopted during high school: “Last of a rare breed.” He knows his physical qualities make him special. A running back with size is hard to stop. And now that he learned how to optimize his abilities, he can thrive.

“It’s not great because you’re good at what you do,” Davis said. “It’s not great because you had a 100-yard game or you scored a touchdown. It’s great, to me, because you are doing the very thing that you said you wanted to do when you got here.”