College Football 2011: Montel Harris and the 10 Best ACC Running Backs
Quickly now, who was the last ACC team to win a BCS National Championship?
The answer is the 2001 Miami Hurricanes coached by Larry Coker.
The ACC has fallen way behind the traditional power conferences with which they used to be considered on par.
Virginia Tech is the only team that has won a BCS bowl since 1999—that was back in 2008. The ACC was 4-5 during the 2010 bowl season, which marked the fourth consecutive year the conference suffered a losing record in postseason play. Over those four seasons, the once-mighty Atlantic Coast Conference is just 13-21 in bowl games.
However, things may be looking up this season.
Florida State has been ranked as high as No.7 to as low as No.12 to start the 2011 season.
The ACC had 35 players selected in April's NFL Draft, including three first-round selections.
What may carry the ACC back into the national spotlight this season is its corps of young running backs. I will profile a group of 10, starting with the only returning runner from the 2010 All-ACC team.
As the ACC's leading rusher last season, Boston College's Montel Harris rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. The junior from Jacksonville, Fla. also chipped in with 112 receiving yards while adding another score.
Harris has been a very productive back his first two seasons with Boston College. He has more than 3,600 career rushing yards and should leave Chestnut Hill as the all-time leading rusher in Eagles football history.
Harris also currently holds the BC record for both touchdowns (five) in a game and rushing yards (264) in a game against NC State last October.
Despite the Eagles' inconsistent play at quarterback and the opponent’s ability to key on BC's running game, Harris still averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season. Harris will again carry a big workload for third-year head coach Frank Spaziani.
However, he should not have to carry the offense as much as he has in the past.
Sophomore Andrea Williams started for the injured Harris in the Eagles' regular-season finale, and all he did was set a school record for carries (42) while rushing for 185 yards and a touchdown in his first career start.
With Williams’ emergence, it is possible the number of carries for Harris could drop, but he will still be one of the top backs—if not the top back—in the ACC this season.
While Harris is No. 1 on the list, here are nine more who should catch your eye in the upcoming 2011 season.
No. 9: Perry Jones, Virginia
While at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., Jones starred as a running back and linebacker. He was chosen as The AP's AAA Player of the Year by a panel of sportswriters, while also leading the way on the defense's first team.
When Virginia recruited him, Jones said the Cavaliers only had film of his defensive talents because he did not start playing on the offensive side of the ball until his senior season.
Offense and Jones seem to agree with one another.
As a sophomore, he started 11 of 12 games in the Cavaliers' backfield, carrying 137 times for 646 yards with one touchdown. Jones showed ball-catching abilities as well, with 31 receptions for 224 more yards.
His 38-yard rush on the Cavaliers' first offensive play from scrimmage in 2010 was longer than any rush by Virginia in 2009. In the Cavaliers' second game of the year, a three-point loss to the Trojans at USC, Jones had 103 rushing and receiving yards.
With strength and 4.4 speed, the 5'8", 185-pound Jones is expected to be atop the depth charts in Charlottesville now that Keith Payne is gone.
While the Cavs are predicted to occupy the bottom half of the ACC once again in 2011, they are expected to improve a game or two above their 4-8 (1-7 in ACC) record from last year. With a favorable schedule to start the season and improved play from Virginia, the Cavaliers could potentially win four of their first five contests.
Jones could pick up a lot of early confidence with teams like William & Mary, Indiana, Southern Miss and Idaho on the early schedule for Virginia. If Jones and the Cavaliers can take advantage early on, then don't be surprised to see Jones as a first or second-team All-ACC player and the Cavs in a second-tier bowl game.
No. 8: Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech
Last season Georgia Tech rushed for a school-record 4,203 yards, breaking the record it set in 2009 with 4,136 yards. The Jackets’ rushing average of 323.3 yards per game was the second-highest in school history behind only the 1975 team (329.7 YPG).
Because of the record-setting, high-energy and highly entertaining option offense of Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets played in a bowl game for the 14th consecutive season, tying for the fourth-longest active streak nationally behind Florida State (29), Florida (20) and Virginia Tech (18).
However, Georgia Tech lost two key components to their option offense—running back Anthony Allen, who was drafted by the Ravens, and Joshua Nesbitt, who many considered the most productive rushing quarterback in ACC history. Nesbitt was a big part of the reason Tech led the nation in rushing offense (323.3 YPG) and finished in the top five nationally in rushing in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
With five solid A-backs headed to camp, junior Orwin Smith is expected to pick up where Allen and Nesbitt left off.
Smith contributed immediately in Atlanta as a true freshman. He currently holds Georgia Tech's single-season records for kickoff returns (37) and kickoff return yards (888). Last season as a sophomore, Smith averaged 9.7 yards per carry, gaining 516 yards on just 53 carries. He scored four touchdowns and was Georgia Tech's second leading receiver in 2010 with 12 catches for 195 yards.
The Phoenix City, Ala. native displayed his explosive outside running ability when he ran for a 73-yard touchdown in a victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill last season.
Standing 6'0" and 202 pounds, Smith is big, strong and quick. His 40-yard dash average is 4.53, adding to his great instincts while exploding through holes.
If Tech's running game continues to be amongst the best in the nation, then look for Smith's name to appear at the top of the list for rushing yards not just in the ACC, but also in the country.
No. 7: Josh Harris, Wake Forest
On any other team in the ACC—or the country, for that matter—Wake Forest running back Josh Harris would be stealing many preseason headlines as one of the top young running backs to watch during the 2011 season.
Harris suffered a torn ACL in April 2008 while playing high school ball in Duncanville, Texas. In his first game back midway through his senior season, Harris rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on only nine carries. Last season as a freshman on a bad Wake Forest team (3-9, 1-7 ACC), Harris rushed for 720 yards on 125 carries.
His seven rushing touchdowns were tied for sixth in the conference, he finished eighth in rushing yards and was seventh in yards per attempt with 5.76. Harris accumulated 33 percent of his yards in one game last season, but it was not against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
While many expect 2011 to be a true break-out year for Harris, his break-out game occurred last October in a loss to eventual ACC champ, Virginia Tech. Making his first start for the Demon Deacons in Blacksburg, Harris rushed for 241 yards on 20 carries. He scored two touchdowns, including an 87-yard scamper, which was the longest run given up by Virginia Tech since Wesley McFadden of Clemson had an 89-yard run in 1987—Frank Beamer’s first game as head coach of the Hokies.
Harris' performance won him the ACC Rookie of the Week award, as he became the first player to gain 200 yards on a Frank Beamer defense since Willis McGahee in 2000. The 241 yards were the most yards Virginia Tech ever allowed on the ground; the previous high was 239 by Paul Palmer of Temple in 1986.
Expected to be the man in Winston-Salem this year, the 5'10", 190-pound redshirt sophomore ran for 85 yards and the only touchdown, a 45-yard sprint, during the Demon Deacons' spring scrimmage in April.
Harris appears to be a player who is capable of playing on Sundays. Even if Wake is not that entertaining to watch this year, you may still want to tune in for Harris, who could be an All-ACC selection by year's end.
No. 6: Mike James, Miami
Despite having quality talent the past few seasons, the Miami Hurricanes have not lived up to expectations.
Exit Randy Shannon, and enter the man who turned the Temple Owls into winners, Al Golden.
Golden is a disciplinarian and will differ from Shannon in that it is unlikely he will live and die on the arm of his quarterback.
Senior Jacory Harris and sophomore Stephen Morris both threw more INT’s than TD’s last season. Golden and new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who joins Golden from the Seattle Seahawks, likes to run the football and will rely on the Canes' backfield, which just got less crowded this past weekend.
Sophomore runner Storm Johnson, who was rumored to be one of the one of six players Golden reportedly suspended for the 2011 season-opener against Maryland for violating team rules, announced he is transferring to the University of Central Florida.
Johnson was expected to compete with and eventually unseat Mike James in the Miami backfield this season. However, Johnson did not perform well during the spring game and was listed as third on the Miami depth chart.
Therefore, sophomore Lamar Miller and junior Mike James will be the tandem expected to carry the Hurricanes this season. Standing at 5'11" and weighing 217 pounds, James is the slower of the two and is more of a traditional back, running between the tackles for his yards.
James is also a very versatile player, as he played in all 13 games last season and started three.
Each of his starts came at different positions; James started at fullback against Florida State, kick returner against USF and running back against Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
He was third on the team last season with 70 rushes for 398 yards, but averaged almost six yards per carry. James is a decent blocker and has good hands as a receiver out of the backfield.
The Hanies City, Fla. native will play the 2011 season with a very heavy heart. Five days before Christmas last year, his mother was killed in a car accident. His sister, who was driving the car, and her 5-year-old son survived.
With Johnson gone, James may be able to settle nicely into a role that may better define him and a possible future in the NFL. With a lot of inspirational motivation, look for James’ name to appear a lot when the Hurricanes play this season.
No. 5: Lamar Miller, Miami
The University of Miami has a well-documented history of producing great NFL talent. In the 1980's, quarterbacks and wide receivers headlined with NFL teams, and the 1990's saw a run of defensive talent with lineman and linebackers.
In the last 10-12 years, it has been safeties, tight ends and running backs making their mark in the NFL for the Hurricanes. Since 2001, 10 different Hurricanes have lined up in the backfield of NFL teams. Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore are a few of the star running backs who have recently represented "The U" on Sundays.
Lamar Miller's goal is to carry on the tradition of those great Miami running backs, and he appears well on his way.
With a crowded backfield last season, Miller received just 108 carries, but he made the most of them, rushing for 646 yards with six touchdowns and an average six yards per carry.
With Johnson gone and James more of a north/south runner, Miller could see 250 carries this year. If that happens, behind a great and nearly intact Miami offensive line, Miller could develop into a Heisman candidate.
At 5'11" and 210 pounds, his physical attributes are impressive, and Miller a lot of speed. He displayed it last season, tearing apart the VA Tech defense in his coming-out game. Miller rushed for his season-high of 163 yards and one touchdown during the 31-17 loss in Miami.
Miller can also catch the ball out of the backfield, as he had nine catches for 96 yards in 2010. That number could increase this season as new head coach Al Golden likes his QB’s to check down when nothing is available to minimize turnovers.
Miller finished last season with just 21 yards in his final two games, but during the Canes' spring game in April, he was fantastic; he rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries.
Most speed backs do not like to run in between the tackles, but Miller's size, speed and vision allow him to play inside, finding cutback lanes and leaving defenses behind.
I will not make comparisons just yet, but if Miller does what he is capable of this year and next, then carrying on the tradition of Hurricanes running backs in the NFL will be a foregone conclusion.
The name Lamar Miller will be heard over the microphone at some point in the first round during the 2013 NFL Draft.
No. 4: Davin Meggett, Maryland
Everything about Davin Meggett says he could be the best running back in the ACC by the end of the year.
The pedigree is there; his father, Dave Meggett, was a favorite of Bill Parcells when he played for the Giants, Patriots and Jets (Parcells coached all three teams). Dave was an All-Pro three times, a two-time Pro-Bowler and a Super Bowl champ.
Davin, who hales from nearby Clinton, Md., has his father’s build and football mentality—but more importantly, Davin possesses his father’s heart.
He started his college career in 2008 as a true freshman for the Maryland Terrapins after being told by many he may not have the size to play at the collegiate level.
Last season Davin led the Terps in rushing with 720 yards on 126 attempts. With four rushing TD’s in 2010 though, Davin is not the Terps' red zone back; that job belongs to sophomore D.J. Adams, who had 11 rushing TD’s last season.
At 5'9", Davin possesses enough speed to cause defenders to miss, but when you couple that with his 215-pound build, he becomes difficult to bring down between the tackles.
In three seasons with Maryland, Davin has rushed for 1,515 yards and averaged almost five yards per carry. His senior season is filled with promise. With QB Danny O'Brien emerging as a potential passing star, teams will not be able to key on Maryland’s running game alone anymore.
Maryland’s new head coach, Randy Edsall, was always a conservative, run-first guy while at Connecticut. Keep in mind though Edsall never had a quarterback as good as O'Brien.
With Davin, O'Brien and Adams in the Terps' backfield this season, Maryland should once again compete for the ACC title.
Only a loss to Florida State at home in the second-to-last game of 2010 ended the Terps' chances of playing in Charlotte for the ACC crown. If the Terps are playing in Charlotte this December, you can bet Davin Meggett had a lot to do with them being there.
No. 3: Chris Thompson, Florida State
Junior running back Chris Thompson is filled with potential, but a crowded backfield could keep the potential FSU star from breaking out in 2011.
As a sophomore, Thompson led the Seminoles in rushing with 845 yards on 134 carries. His 6.3 yards per carry was the highest by an FSU back with 100 or more carries in a season since Leon Washington averaged 6.9 in 2004.
Even though Thompson appeared in all 14 FSU games last season, he started only six games, sharing the rushing load with tailbacks Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones.
The backfield is even more crowded this season.
Along with Thompson, Thomas and Jones, true freshman Devonta Freeman joins the trio this season.
With blazing speed, Thompson collected the ACC's longest touchdown run of the 2010 season with a 90-yard sprint against FSU rival, Miami. The 90-yard TD run was also the third-longest TD run from scrimmage in FSU history.
Thompson also has scored on runs of 83 yards against BYU and 70 yards against Maryland. He ranked second on the team with eight plays covering 25 or more yards last season, all on runs from scrimmage.
He was named the Chick-fil-A Bowl's Offensive MVP after rushing for 148 yards on a career-high 25 carries.
The former four-star prospect out of Madison County High School in Greenville, Fla. can do more than run from scrimmage. He led all FSU running backs with 19 receptions for 155 yards, including his first career TD reception in the ACC Championship game.
Thompson's size, speed and playmaking ability most certainly conjures up memories of another great FSU running back from the past.
At 5'8" and just 190 pounds, Thompson is one inch shorter and three pounds heavier than former Noles great, Warrick Dunn. If Thompson can emerge—and he should—out of the Noles' crowded backfield, he is capable of more than just an occasional reminder of the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer/Atlanta Falcon great.
Thompson has the ability to put up Dunn-like numbers and create Dunn-like memories for the Seminole nation.
No. 2: Andre Ellington, Clemson
Andre Ellington learned a lot from former Tiger and now Buffalo Bills running back, C.J. Spiller.
Although Ellington does not have Spiller's speed, he does have his knack for finding the end zone. On the day the Tigers retired Spiller's jersey last season, Ellington returned a kickoff (above video) 87 yards for a touchdown in a win against Maryland, who was then nationally ranked.
Through the first seven games of 2010, Ellington was headed for First-Team All-ACC honors. He rushed for 642 rushing yards on 102 carries with 10 rushing touchdowns. Ellington also had 12 catches, including one touchdown reception and a 34-yard kickoff return average with an additional touchdown.
Ellington led the ACC in all-purpose yards (128.9), was fifth in rushing with 85.5 yards per game and his 12 touchdowns ranked 10th in the country and first in the ACC. Included in these totals are his 22-carry, 140-yard effort against eventual National Champion Auburn and his 166 rushing yards, three total touchdowns and 8.3 yards per carry average against Georgia Tech
Not even Spiller, his best friend, had numbers that resembled Ellington's in his senior season; Spiller had 547 rushing yards on 108 carries with three rushing touchdowns through the first seven games of his senior season.
Then came the Boston College game and a toe injury that was originally supposed to sideline Ellington for two games. Instead the fickle injury ended his season, immediately putting the rising numbers and recognition to a screeching halt.
Without the explosive Ellington, Clemson lost three of their last four games to finish the season at 6-7.
During the offseason, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney hired Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris for the same position. Morris will replace Billy Napier, who many felt had allowed the Tigers' offense to grow stale.
Averaging 40 points per game, Morris led Tulsa to a fifth overall ranking in total offense in the FBS last season. With Morris now calling the plays, many believe Ellington will flourish even more, adding heavily to his two-year totals of 1,177 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Toe injuries are tricky, but if Ellington is 100 percent, his explosiveness and knack for finding the end zone could lead to big things for both him and the Tigers during the 2011 season.
No. 1: David Wilson, Virginia Tech
With Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans gone from Blacksburg, Danville, Va. native David Wilson becomes the most experienced player in the Virginia Tech backfield this year.
There is absolutely no need to worry if you’re a Hokies fan and if your team plays VA Tech this season, then you need to pay attention, because Wilson is scary good.
As one of the most explosive runners in the country, Wilson will shoulder Virginia Tech's running game in 2011.
As a sophomore last season, Wilson rushed for 619 yards and 11 touchdowns (five rushing, four receiving and two on kickoff returns) on 113 attempts. Adding to his rushing totals, Wilson caught 15 passes for 234 yards and averaged 26.5 yards per kickoff return. He now has 15 TD’s through two seasons in Blacksburg, with 1,187 rushing and receiving yards.
His versatility, speed and athleticism are always on display when he is on the field. But just how athletic and fast is Wilson?
He has been clocked running a sub-4.3 40-yard dash and recently became the first Virginia Tech football player since Andre Davis in 2000 to qualify for the NCAA outdoor track and field championships.
At 5'10" and 205 pounds, Wilson is much more ripped than most triple-jumpers, or any other track and field competitors for that matter. His goal is to be a two-sport All-American, and he qualified for the national championships by finishing sixth in last month’s NCAA East Region meet.
Wilson received permission to miss the Hokies’ spring football game to attend the ACC championships in April. At that ACC outdoor meet, he finished second behind teammate Hasheem Halim.
However, he won the triple-jump competition at the Penn Relays earlier this spring, as well as the Nike Indoor Nationals during his senior year at George Washington High in Danville, Va.
It is clear watching Wilson run that he is more than capable of leading the Hokies' rushing attack. Many experts are predicting he will quickly become a star on the national scene this season. If that happens, the Hokies will no doubt be back in Charlotte playing to defend their ACC Championship.
If Wilson becomes a major national presence, then the Hokies could be playing for a National Championship.
Keep an eye on Wilson because he will be running—very fast I might add—on a TV screen sometime starting in September. If you blink, you just might miss him.
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