BOSTON – Montel Harris throws back his head and cracks a wide smile.
"I've got a strong feeling this is going to be a good year," said the Boston College running back, who is on the verge of breaking the Eagles' all-time rushing record and has the Atlantic Coast Conference one within his sights, too. "If I'm able to break both of those records, and we have a winning record and win games, that will be great."
The ACC's preseason player of the year, Harris needs 126 yards to reach 3,726 rushing in his career and pass Derrick Knight on the Eagles' all-time list. The BC senior needs 1,002 yards to set the conference record for rushing (4,602 yards) held since 1978 by North Carolina State's Ted Brown.
But he'll have to do it on a repaired left knee that knocked him out of the Fight Hunger Bowl in January. Harris said this week he's 100 percent healed and practicing without limitation.
"I've seen a different aura about him," coach Frank Spaziani said at media day on Friday. "It's back to where it was before he got injured. He looks like the old Montel: enthusiastic like he's always been, working hard like he's always been, making cuts like he's always made."
BC opens the season on Sept. 3 at home against Northwestern, and the Eagles are hoping that a more experienced team will improve on the 7-6 record from 2010.
After a year of a quarterback shuffle — three players started there last season — Chase Rettig is entrenched in the job, for now. Rettig threw for 1,238 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions last year after winning the job over opening day starter Dave Shinskie and Mike Marscovetra.
"I'm the guy right now this year," Rettig said. "Everything is based on trying to make everyone around me better."
Spaziani said Rettig has responded well to his climb to the top of the depth chart, and a second training camp and last year's experience should make the sophomore more steady in the pocket.
"It's good to have a quarterback that's played. It makes everybody around him feel better, the players, the coaches, and myself," Spaziani said. "The players are all competing for jobs, but he's not looking over his shoulder. No jersey's ever tattooed on anybody."
BC lost tackle Anthony Castonzo, who was a first-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts, and two other starters on the offensive line that had been blocking for Harris. Another big loss was linebacker Mark Herzlich, an inspirational leader on defense who was one of the top players in the nation before being diagnosed with cancer. He returned last year and got stronger as the season went on, eventually signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent.
"Any time you lose somebody like that, not only on the field but for his leadership, it's going to hurt," said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the nation with 183 tackles last year. "With Mark, it's just his passion for the game."
After running for 1,554 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore, Harris ran for 1,278 yards and eight scores last season. But his chase for the school record hit a setback in January when he pulled a nerve in his left knee while warming up for the bowl game in San Francisco. He sat out the game, which BC lost 20-13 to Nevada, crying on the sideline.
In practice this summer, he has shown no sign of a problem other than a gauze wrap to keep the swelling down.
"Swelling, that's going to be around pretty much the rest of my life," Harris said. "But right now it's 100 percent sure starting, be ready to help my team. I'm full go."
Harris' return could be the best sign for an offense that struggled last year, especially during a five-game losing streak that sent the Eagles to an 0-4 start in the conference. After opening up with a pair of wins over Weber State and Kent State, the Eagles never scored more than 23 points again.
"We know that we need to improve on the offense to win games," Harris said. "That's our goal this year: not just depend on the defense — to do our job."
Rettig said the offense installed by new coordinator Kevin Rogers is more wide open than last year's. More importantly, receivers like Colin Larmond Jr., who missed all of last season after injuring his knee in training camp, will be able to stretch the field.
"We definitely have some guys that can go up and get the ball," Rettig said. "The defense kept us in a lot of games last year. We just had to make sure we didn't turn the ball over. We're going to take that mindset and use it as a way to improve this year.
"Guys are excited. We want to put up a lot of points this year. We feel like we have the tools to do that."