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Harris is ready to go for Eagles

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / July 25, 2011

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PINEHURST, N.C. - It is different this summer for Montel Harris. Personal goals are still on the mind of the 5-foot-10-inch, 200-pound senior running back, who is within reach of becoming the all-time leading rusher in Boston College and Atlantic Coast Conference history.

But Harris sees the big picture for the Eagles, who are chasing their first ACC football title as they enter their seventh season as the conference’s newest member.

“The personal goals are great,’’ Harris said last week as he took a break from the drills at BC and prepared for the trip to North Carolina for the conference’s football kickoff festivities. “But it’s all about the team. If you don’t win games, nothing else matters that much. This is going to be my last season in a BC uniform and I want to help us get to the Orange Bowl [the landing spot for the ACC champion, barring a slot in the BCS title game].’’

A year ago, Harris was coming off a season in which he had 1,457 yards and scored 14 TDs, which were instrumental in helping BC post an 8-5 record and earn its 11th consecutive bowl appearance. Entering his junior season, Harris seemed on the fast track to breaking all sorts of individual records, as well as establishing himself as arguably the best running back in the ACC.

Before the season, Harris talked of wanting to become the leading rusher in BC history - Derrick Knight holds the record of 3,725 yards. A career that had begun with muted expectations and with Harris sharing a role with Josh Haden had been kicked up a notch.

If there has been one constant in the Eagles’ offense, which has faced adjustments as Tom O’Brien was replaced as coach by Jeff Jagodzinski who was replaced by Frank Spaziani in a four-year period, it has been Harris.

“He’s the linchpin,’’ said Spaziani, who replaced Jagodzinski two years ago and has mixed and matched quarterbacks, offensive linemen, and wide receivers but who has watched as Harris provided 100-yard-plus game after 100-yard-plus game each week. “He’s been a difference-maker since the day he came in and started playing in his freshman season.’’

Harris was an add-on to BC’s recruiting class in 2008. Although he came out of Trinity Christian in Jacksonville, Fla., with impressive numbers - he led the team in rushing and receiving for three straight years - he wasn’t even regarded as the best running back at the school. That honor belonged to Jamie Harper, who was recruited by Clemson.

Harris hoped Florida State would express some interest, but the Seminoles showed almost none. He committed to Duke until in a whirlwind two-week period, Jagodzinski and his staff decided they needed running backs. They brought in Haden, a 5-8, 182-pound prospect from Maryland and with Harris created a mini-back combination, labeling them 1 and 1A and giving Haden uniform No. 1 and Harris No. 2.

The promise BC offered Harris was that he would play right away, and he did, rushing for 900 yards as a freshman and scoring 5 TDs. Included in that effort was a 121-yard performance on 25 carries in a 27-17 upset of Florida State. “I wanted to go back home and prove that I could play,’’ Harris said at the time.

He has done that ever since. Haden faded from the picture a year later, eventually transferring. He re-emerged last winter at Toledo, where he will play this fall.

Harris gained 1,243 yards last season despite missing the final two games because of a torn left lateral meniscus. He has taken a slow but steady recovery course.

Spaziani held him out of spring drills as part of the rehab process and Harris has been carefully working his way back into football shape for his final season, which will begin with camp in two weeks.

“At first they said I would be out 4-6 weeks,’’ said Harris. “But it took longer than that. It’s been a long time to get back to 100 percent. The last 2-3 weeks, I’ve been going full speed.’’

Harris will enter camp with some help. Sophomore Andre Williams picked up the slack when Harris went down and has shown signs of star power as well. “We have more than one running back,’’ said Harris, who still will be No. 1 when he returns. “The workload won’t be as heavy.’’

Not that the expectations won’t be.

Harris said that playing in the ACC championship game as freshman gave him a taste of how he really wants to end his career at BC.

“I want to go to the Orange Bowl, to play for a championship,’’ said the player who has been called “the best running back you never heard of’’ in some preseason surveys. “I know it’s all about the team, because if you don’t win games, the individual goals don’t mean a whole lot.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.