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Top 12 College Comeback Player of the Year candidates

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Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton has suffered ACL injuries in each of the past two seasons.

As every football fan knows, injuries play a big role in how a team performs. When star players go down, chances are his replacement can't truly replace him.

That wasn't the case at Ohio State last season, though, when J.T. Barrett stepped in for Braxton Miller and guided the Buckeyes to a 12-0 start. Then, when Barrett was injured in the regular-season finale, Cardale Jones entered college football lore by guiding Ohio State to three consecutive wins and the national title.

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Miller's return from injury has been one of the most-followed college football stories of the past six months, and it will continue to be newsworthy -- especially if he decides to play his senior season elsewhere. But he is not the only key player returning from injury.

Here are 12 other players who missed at least three-quarters of the 2014 season but are hugely important to their teams' success this fall. In short, given their importance and talent, these dozen guys could be considered the top Comeback Player of the Year candidates.

Again, this includes only players who missed at least three-quarters of the 2014 season; that's why players such as BYU QB Taysom Hill, Mississippi WR Laquon Treadwell and Clemson QB Deshaun Watson aren't listed.

WR Bralon Addison, Oregon

The particulars: 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, junior
The skinny: Big things seemed to be on tap for Addison in 2014, but he suffered a torn ACL in spring practice and missed the season. He had 61 receptions in '13 and would've been Oregon's go-to receiver last season. He also is a dangerous punt returner. While Oregon's starting quarterback job hasn't been settled, Addison's return means whomever is at quarterback is going to have a deep receiving corps with which to work.

CB Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech

The particulars: 6-2, 184, sophomore
The skinny: He started the first three games last season before a shin injury sidelined him for the rest of the year; then, he broke his leg in December. If Facyson is healthy, he and Kendall Fuller will form perhaps the best cornerback duo in the nation. Facyson has excellent size, is physical and can run. If football doesn't work out for him, he should be fine: Both his parents are educators and he is majoring in biological sciences with a goal of becoming a heart surgeon.

OT Tyler Johnstone, Oregon

The particulars: 6-6, 295, senior
The skinny: Johnstone is the second Ducks player on our list, and like Bralon Addison, he suffered a torn ACL; Johnstone's injury came in fall camp. He would've been the Ducks' best offensive lineman last season, and he will be expected to be just that this fall. After redshirting in 2011, he started all 26 games in 2012 and '13 at left tackle. He should vie for, at the least, All-Pac-12 honors this season.

QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah State

The particulars: 6-2, 210, senior
The skinny: When he has been healthy, Keeton has proved that he is one of the nation's most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks. But his health has been a big issue the past two seasons. He suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in Game 6 in 2013 and missed the rest of the season; in 2014, he suffered the same injury to the same knee in Game 3 and missed the rest of the season. If he is healthy this fall, he should be one of the nation's best quarterbacks. Keeton has a strong arm and has thrown 58 TD passes in 31 career games. He also has rushed for 1,234 yards and 15 touchdowns. Utah State also is welcoming back senior LB Kyler Fackrell (6-5, 250), who suffered a torn ACL in the season opener and missed the rest of the season. He has excellent size and has been clocked as fast as 4.64 in the 40-yard dash. If healthy, Fackrell has the talent to be the Mountain West's Defensive Player of the Year.

Check out the top 10 players from Florida State to play in the NFL.

DT Nile Lawrence-Stample, Florida State

The particulars: 6-1, 323, senior
The skinny: Lawrence-Stample suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the fourth game and missed the rest of the season. His return will be big, literally and figuratively, for a FSU defensive line that lost some key players and will need to play well in front of a linebacker group that has some questions. Lawrence-Stample was a part-time starter at defensive tackle in 2013, then took over as the starting nose tackle before suffering the injury last season. He is a classic run-stuffer, clogging up the middle, taking up space and holding up well at the point of attack.

DE Carl Lawson, Auburn

The particulars: 6-2, 257, junior
The skinny: Lawson suffered a torn ACL during 2014's spring practice and missed the season. He had played well as a true freshman reserve in '13 and his absence was a blow to an Auburn defense that struggled to mount a pass rush last season. That should change this season; new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp does a good job of devising ways to get pass rushers in advantageous matchups, which means Lawson should finish with double-digit sacks. Lawson, who had 27 sacks as a high school senior in the talent-rich Atlanta area, has a quick first step and also possesses good strength.

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DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech

The particulars: 6-1, 293, senior
The skinny: He is the second Hokie on our list. Maddy is a high-motor guy who missed all but four games last season with a knee injury that required two surgeries, though neither was considered major. Maddy is a squatty guy with excellent first-step quickness; he is tough against the run and also provides a pass rush. He has 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in his career. He and DE Dadi Nicolas should form one of the best defensive line duos in the nation; they also played together in high school, at Delray Beach (Fla.) Atlantic.

TE Jake McGee, Florida

The particulars: 6-6, 243, senior
The skinny: McGee was a graduate transfer from Virginia who figured to have a big role in the Gators' offense last season, but he suffered a broken leg in the first quarter of the opener and missed the rest of the season. He received a waiver from the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility. While he needs to work on his blocking, McGee is a good receiver who figures to play an important role in new coach Jim McElwain's offense. Florida's receiving corps is a huge question mark, so McGee should be one of the Gators' leading receivers.

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CB Demetrious Nicholson, Virginia

The particulars: 5-11, 185, senior
The skinny: Nicholson was a consensus national top-50 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, and began to live up to the hype with a strong true freshman season in '11. He started every game in 2011 and '12 but has played in just six games total the past two seasons because of a lingering case of turf toe. He played in one game in 2014, the fifth contest of the season, and had an interception, but suffered a recurrence of the injury and was shut down for the rest of the year. Nicholson has excellent speed (he has been clocked as fast as 4.35 seconds in the 40) and is active and physical in run support. He has All-ACC talent if healthy.

S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

The particulars: 6-1, 205, sophomore
The skinny: Peppers missed all but three games last season with leg and ankle injuries; his absence hurt a Michigan defense that lacked speed and playmakers. Peppers was the consensus No. 3 prospect nationally in the 2014 recruiting class, behind only Leonard Fournette and Myles Garrett. Peppers -- who had a strong spring practice -- has excellent size and can run; he was a state 100- and 200-meter champ in New Jersey and set a state record in the 200 with a clocking of 20.79 seconds. Peppers is the most talented player on Michigan's defense, and that needs to show on the field this fall.

Take a look at the top 10 players from Nebraska to play in the NFL.

LB Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska

The particulars: 5-11, 240, junior
The skinny: He made 66 tackles in 2013 to set a Nebraska freshman record, then missed last season with a torn ACL suffered in fall camp. He is expected to be 100 percent this season and should be a key starter for new coach Mike Riley. Nebraska has few proven linebackers, and depth likely will be an issue. If Rose-Ivey can play as well as he did in the last half of the '13 season, he will provide a huge boost.

CB Tee Shepard, Mississippi

The particulars: 6-1, 195, junior
The skinny: Shepard has had a star-crossed college career. He sat out his senior season of high school in Fresno, Calif., in 2011, yet still was a consensus top-60 national prospect in the 2012 recruiting class and enrolled that January at Notre Dame. But he left Notre Dame in the middle of his first semester because of academic issues. He didn't play football that fall, then played at Holmes Community College in Mississippi in 2013; it was the first time for him on a football field since his junior season of high school in 2010. Shepard signed with Mississippi in February 2014, but missed last season because of a torn tendon in his toe suffered during fall camp. He is scheduled to be a starting corner for the Rebels this fall. Shepard has big-time talent: He has excellent size, is physical, possesses good ball skills and can run. Rebels coaches hope he produces: Ole Miss has excellent safeties, but both starting corners are new and depth at the position is unproven.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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