Boston College fans got a piece of bad news yesterday, with the announcement that Montel Harris, last year's leading ACC rusher and the conference's Preseason Player of the Year, will miss the first month of the season to the same knee injury that cut his 2010 season short. It shouldn't be too tough of a blow, as his backup Andre Williams is no slouch, and the Eagles open against Northwestern and Central Florida. It does leave open the race for this season's rushing leaders, however. Here are a couple of contenders:
- Josh Harris, Wake Forest: It's a little disturbing to think that the conference's leading rusher could come out of Winston-Salem, playing for a team not likely to break .500. But Harris had 720 yards on just 126 carries as a freshman, and should make a considerable advance in his second season. His offensive line will be decent, considering the talent level. If anything is going to hinder Harris, it's his own defense – the Deacons could find themselves in a lot of deficits they'll have to throw their way out of.
- Andre Ellington, Clemson: Ellington takes over for Jamie Harper, who left for the NFL after last season. Ellington once had the starting job himself before a toe injury sidelined him halfway through the season, and averaged over a yard per carry than his replacement did. He has a great offensive line in front of him, and as long as he's healthy, he could steal the spotlight from either Harris.
- Lamar Miller, Miami: Miller, surprisingly enough, has not been named in any of the shenanigans surrounding crooked booster Navin Shapiro, so at least he's guaranteed to take the field this season. A freshman last season playing behind Damien Berry, Miller was still strong enough to finish eighth in the ACC in rushing. He peaked against Virginia Tech, tearing the Hokie defense apart for 163 yards in just 15 carries in a loss, but faded down the stretch to be a non-factor in the last two games. This year is his chance to shine, and Miami's best hope to live up to the Hurricanes' preseason expectations.
- Chris Thompson, Florida State: Thompson, a junior, is ostensibly the starter at FSU, but the Seminoles look to do a lot of running-by-committee. There's senior Jermaine Thomas, who lost the starting job with an injury last season, and senior Ty Jones, who also saw significant playing time last year. And if that's not enough, there are two freshmen also jockeying for playing time. The Seminoles have more depth here than any other team in the ACC, which will keep any one player from grasping the limelight, but make this one of the more feared ground attacks out there.
- David Wilson, Virginia Tech: The junior Wilson makes the list here more for his team's pedigree than anything he's shown on the field. The Hokies have had a lot of turnover at the running back position in recent years, but have found another excellent performer to carry the ball after each departure. This year it's Darren Evans and Ryan Williams who have left, taking a decent chunk of yardage with them. More importantly may be the loss of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Taylor's scrambling ability aways kept opposing defenses on edge, and opened up a lot of opportunities for his teammates. With a less mobile quarterback under center, Wilson may not have as easy of a time as last season.
All this brings us to Ryan Houston. Houston missed last season, having been benched as a precaution while the NCAA investigation ran its course. In 2009 he was splitting time with Shaun Draughn, before the latter went down to injury. Houston's entrance into the lineup turned the season around, but he was a one-dimensional back, grinding his way to only 3.9 yards per carry. He was best used in conjunction with the faster Draughn. He's also coming off shoulder surgery, which could limit him. That's the argument to temper your expectations. On the other hand, Houston has also never really played behind a good offensive line – the 2009 model was a disaster. This year's crop returns almost everyone from last season, where the line made significant improvements as the season went on. It's the best line we've seen since before Butch Davis arrived, and could do wonders for Houston's attack. I'm on the fence on how this will go; UNC isn't particularly deep here, and A.J. Blue has been moved from quarterback to back him up. Blue has been getting a lot of practice time, with Houston in a no-contact jersey and freshman Giovani Bernard in a cast for a fractured hand. Blue appears to be a runner more in Draughn's rapid-cutting mold, so it wouldn't surprise me to see John Shoop rotate the two around like two seasons ago. That'll keep Houston off the top of the rushing lists, but might be best for UNC's win-loss record.