|Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL|
|The Miami offense struggled after RB Duke Johnson suffered a broken ankle in Game 8 of 2013.|
As always, injuries played a role in shaping teams' seasons in 2013. The flipside: The players who missed time in 2013 are back and ready to shape the season again, this time in a good way.
With a nod to the story detailing the top candidates for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, here, then, are 10 candidates for college football's Comeback Player of the Year.
Some of these guys missed the entire '13 season, but all of them missed at least a third of their team's season.
WR Stefon Diggs, MarylandThe injury: Broken leg
The buzz: Diggs (6-foot, 195 pounds), a junior, played in seven games before suffering his injury. If healthy, he has the potential to be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten and to contend for All-American honors. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception on his 34 catches in 2013 after averaging 15.7 on 54 catches as a true freshman in 2012. Almost a fifth of his catches last season (seven) went for at least 30 yards and three covered at least 40 yards. Four of his receptions in 2012 went for at least 50 yards, and he also returned two kickoffs for TDs that fall.
QB Jeff Driskel, FloridaThe injury: Broken leg
The buzz: Driskel, a junior, was injured in Game 3 and Florida's offense was a mess the rest of the way (he was one of three starting offensive players who missed all or most of last season, along with WR Andre Debose and OT Chaz Green). Florida has switched from a pro-set attack to a spread-based offense, which better fits Driskel's skill set. Driskel (6-4, 230) is a good runner with surprising speed for his size and a strong, albeit inaccurate, arm. If Florida is to make any noise in the SEC East this season, Driskel must have a big season.
DE Devonte Fields, TCUThe injury: Broken foot
The buzz: Fields (6-4, 240) was The Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, when he had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman. He played in just three games in 2013 because of a suspension and a foot injury, and received a redshirt. When healthy, he is a high-level pass rusher because of his speed off the edge. He and DT Chucky Hunter form a potent 1-2 punch for TCU along the D-line.
LB Jordan Hicks, TexasThe injury: Torn ACL
The buzz: Hicks (6-2, 244), who blew out his knee in the fourth game last fall, was a five-star talent in the 2010 recruiting class, but he hasn't played a full season since 2011 (he had a groin injury in 2012 and an Achilles issue in 2011). Assuming he is healthy, he should thrive in new coach Charlie Strong's aggressive defensive scheme; how Strong deploys Hicks and rising-star DE Cedric Reed will be interesting to watch. Hicks has the talent to vie for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. But using "assume" and "health" in the same sentence with Hicks is dangerous.
WR Austin Hill, ArizonaThe injury: Torn ACL
The buzz: Hill blew out a knee during spring practice in 2013 and missed the season. In 2012, he had 81 catches for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, and if he can regain that form, he will be one of the nation's pre-eminent receivers as a junior this fall. He has excellent size (6-3, 210) and good speed, and is comfortable in the slot despite his size. He can get deep, with 12 catches of 25-plus yards in 2012.
TB Duke Johnson, MiamiThe injury: Broken ankle
The buzz: Johnson (5-9, 206), a junior, went down in Game 8, and Miami's offense bogged down without its most potent offensive weapon. Truth be told, the offense bogged down at times with him, too, and coaches need to find a way to get Johnson into more one-on-one situations. He also has to prove he can be an effective receiver. Johnson is an explosive weapon and can go the distance on any play; he also runs well between the tackles. With UM's quarterback situation in flux (projected starter Ryan Williams blew out a knee in spring drills), it's vital that Johnson put up big numbers this fall to take pressure off a still-questionable Hurricanes defense.
QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah StateThe injury: Torn ACL
The buzz: Keeton (6-2, 200) injured his knee in Game 6, and missed spring practice as he continued to recover from the injury. Still, he will be one of the nation's top 10 senior quarterbacks this fall. He is a legit dual threat who is a better passer than he is given credit for; he has 55 TD passes and just 13 interceptions in his career. He can make a lot of national noise in Utah State's season-opener, a game at Tennessee. A big season from Keeton could lead to a Mountain West title for the Aggies. Utah State has won just one conference title since 1979 (2012, in the now-defunct WAC).
RB Venric Mark, NorthwesternThe injuries: Ankle and leg
The buzz: Mark played in just three games in 2013 and is back for a fifth year. He's a little guy (5-8, 175) with big-time quickness, and is a dangerous runner, receiver and return man. Northwestern's offense lacked a big-play presence last fall, and his return will be a huge boost in that regard. He has the talent to have an All-Big Ten season, and if Northwestern is to get to a bowl, Mark needs a big year.
WR Malcolm Mitchell, GeorgiaThe injury: Torn ACL
The buzz: He was injured in the season-opening loss to Clemson, and even though QB Aaron Murray still threw for 3,000 yards and 26 TDs, the passing attack never truly recovered from Mitchell's injury because there was no true No. 1 receiver on the roster. Murray is gone now, but a healthy Mitchell (6-1, 190), a junior, means the passing attack still can be dangerous. Mitchell was Georgia's second-leading receiver in 2011 and '12, and he has 70-catch potential this fall. Georgia should have one of the best tailback duos in the nation with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (also coming back from an ACL injury), and the Bulldogs should be run-oriented regardless. But Mitchell's presence on the outside means coordinator Mike Bobo would be foolish not to take some chances in the passing game.
WR Kasen Williams, WashingtonThe injury: Broken leg, torn ligaments in foot
The buzz: Williams, who was Parade magazine's national high school player of the year in 2010, had a big sophomore season in 2012, with 77 receptions, and looked primed for a huge 2013. But Washington became more of a running team with TB Bishop Sankey, and Williams was injured in the eighth game, finishing the season with just 29 receptions. But he appears primed for a big comeback season as a senior this fall. Williams has excellent size (6-3, 221), is a big-time athlete and runs well, and he also is Washington's most talented receiver.
While offensive linemen never are going to win any comeback player awards, there are two worth keeping an eye on this fall, tackle Devin Davis at Oklahoma State and guard Dan Feeney at Indiana. Both should be the best players on their lines and have all-league potential. Davis missed the 2013 season with a torn ACL, while Feeney missed the season with a broken foot.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.