Duke wanted him. So did Ball State. But Florida State? The Seminoles acted as if they had never heard of Montel Harris, a 5-foot-10-inch, 192-pound running back from Jacksonville, Fla., where he starred at Trinity Christian and ranked as the Conquerors' rushing, receiving, and scoring leader for three consecutive seasons.
Truth be told, Boston College didn't spend a lot of time recruiting Harris, either.
"Two weeks," Eagles coach Jeff Jagodzinski said yesterday. "We recruited him in two weeks."
Faced with a dearth of running backs, Jagodzinski and his staff redoubled their efforts to fill the void left by Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth after other targeted recruits, all of whom had been made aware of the Eagles' dire situation and promised immediate playing time, told BC, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Although he grew up wanting to play at Florida State, only to get overlooked, Harris committed to Duke. But when BC entered the picture, "He switched his commitment to us right at the end there, with about two weeks to go in recruiting," said Jagodzinski, who in addition to Harris landed backs Josh Haden, who got a leg up by enrolling early in January; and Jerry Kelly.
Harris figured if he was unable to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Seminoles, then the next best thing was to beat them by playing for one of their Atlantic Division rivals.
"I got to go back home and prove that I could play," Harris said.
Harris did precisely that in BC's 27-17 victory last Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla., where, before a large contingent of family and friends, the freshman rushed for 121 yards on 25 carries, marking his second consecutive 100-yard game and third this season. He highlighted his homecoming by scoring on a 2-yard run, which he punctuated with a strong stiff-arm on a defender at the goal line, giving the Eagles a 24-10 lead at the end of the third quarter.
"Before the season started, we weren't expecting Montel to have quite the impact he's had," said quarterback Chris Crane. "But when Josh had a minor ankle injury and someone had to step up, we tried out everyone and he did not do just adequate in filling in, he did phenomenal."
Indeed, he has. Through 10 games, Harris leads BC rushers with 652 yards on 121 carries with five touchdowns. When Haden went down, Harris made the most of his first career start Sept. 20 by rushing for 112 yards on 13 carries in a 34-7 victory over Central Florida.
"Like my coach said in high school, 'You're always an [injured] ankle away from playing,' " Harris said, "So I kept that in mind and I kept practicing hard and I knew my chance would come sometime. I didn't know when, and I didn't know it would come this early, I knew it would come."
Against Florida State, Harris displayed uncommon strength in moving large piles of defenders.
"He's such a strong kid," said tight end Ryan Purvis. "He's a black belt in karate and he's got great coordination and great balance. It's stuff we've seen him do throughout the whole season in practice and in games. I think he played with a chip on his shoulder, going down to Florida where he's from. He was really excited about going home and seeing some familiar faces and being in a familiar environment. He ran like he had something to prove.
"That stiff-arm down by the goal line was a pretty big play in the game. He was struggling to get down to the goal line, and kicks it outside and makes something out of nothing."
Said Crane, "The play was designed to go up in the gut, and he saw something outside, and he just had the determination that taking it one-on-one was a better option. I turn around and saw him get strung out on the sideline and I thought, 'Oh, what's the next call going to be?' and he just throws out a stiff-arm and just stonewalls the guy right to the ground and just walks in, so that was pretty amazing."
The blow, which was more of a palm strike than a stiff-arm to the defender's facemask, proved all Harris needed to walk into the end zone. "Our backs aren't the biggest of the guys, but they pack a punch," Purvis said.
Nicknamed "Ninja" by his teammates, Harris perfected his punch when he took up karate at age 6 with his older sister, Shienah.
"I guess I had too much energy for my parents, so they wanted to put me in some activities," said Harris, who went on to earn his black belt at 12. "My sister didn't like it and I kept doing it and I started to like it and kept doing it and I just stayed with it. I guess you could say it kind of helped me with my balance - and my stiff-arm."
BC polished off the Seminoles with a punishing 16-play, 65-yard march that resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Steve Aponavicius. It allowed BC's defense to relax, which prompted senior linebacker Mike McLaughlin to shake the hand of each player on offense.
Asked if he shook Harris's hand after the freshman carried nine times for 26 yards on that drive, which lasted 8:55, McLaughlin said, "Of course I did. You kidding me? I went up to him and said, 'I bet Florida State wants you now.' For a kid coming out of Florida, not very highly recruited, and he goes and runs for whatever he did. I mean, those guys couldn't even tackle him.
"True freshman, running like that? That's a statement game and he needs to understand how big of a game that really was for him."
"Yeah, it's always good when you can hold the ball for nine minutes," Harris said. "The O-line, they were working hard. I keep telling 'em all the time to keep blocking and we'll win the ACC. So, that's our goal."
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.