Venric Mark is back at full strength for Northwestern.
Injuries are a significant part of every college football season. Whether it’s a key starter or solid backup, an injury could derail a team’s national or conference title hopes.
Several teams suffered major injuries to key players last season, including Texas with quarterback David Ash, Georgia with running back Keith Marshall and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, TCU with standout defensive end Devonte Fields and Florida with quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Those injuries were just a small sample of the key injuries that occurred either before or during the college football season.
To help prepare for the 2014 season, we examined some of the top players returning from injury and the impact they could make this year. Note: Players that were injured in November (Miami running back Duke Johnson) were not eligible for this list. Instead, this list is focused on players that missed the entire season or a majority of the schedule.
Top 20 College Football Players Back from Injury
David Ash, QB, Texas
The health of David Ash is critical for first-year coach Charlie Strong. Ash threw for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012 but played in only three games due to concussions last season. Prior to his injury, Ash completed 60.9 percent of his throws and tossed seven touchdowns to only two picks. If Ash is injured again in 2014, true freshman Jerrod Heard or sophomore Tyrone Swoopes – two inexperienced players – would get the call under center for Strong.
Brian Blechen, S, Utah
Blechen has been an under-the-radar performer in Salt Lake City, and his return will help a Utah defense that allowed 28 points per game in 2013. The California native missed 2013 due to knee issues but has 35 career appearances and 203 tackles as a Ute. Blechen’s best season came in 2012, recording 78 stops, eight tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. Expect Blechen to push for all-conference honors at safety in 2014.
Stefon Diggs/Deon Long, WR, Maryland
Maryland heads into its first season of Big Ten play with one of the top receiving corps in the conference. Diggs is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and caught 34 passes for 587 yards and three scores in just seven games last year. Long was also injured in Maryland’s seventh game last year and finished 2013 with 32 catches for 489 yards and one touchdown. With Diggs and Long back at full strength, expect the Terrapins’ offense to take a step forward in its Big Ten debut.
Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
Will Muschamp’s long-term future in Gainesville could hinge on Driskel’s health. After a 4-8 mark in 2013, there’s enormous pressure on Muschamp to get the Gators back in contention for the SEC East title. Driskel was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class and led Florida to a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2012 after completing 63.7 percent of his throws and 12 touchdowns. However, Driskel was off to a slow start in 2013 (477 yards, three interceptions in three games) when he suffered a season-ending leg injury against Tennessee. New coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with fixing Florida’s offense, which has ranked eighth or worse in the SEC (conference-only games) in yards per play over the last four seasons. Driskel should be a good fit in Roper’s offense, but he also needs more help from the receiving corps and offensive line.
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Fields had a breakout freshman campaign in 2012, recording 18.5 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and earned AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The bar was set high for Fields in 2013, but he played in three games due to injury and finished with four tackles (two for a loss). When healthy, Fields is one of the top linemen and defenders in the Big 12. He anchors a TCU defensive line that should be among the best in the conference this year.
Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Texas’ defense, but the Longhorns have room to improve after allowing 5.2 yards per play in conference games last season. Hicks was a key piece of the defense in 2011 with 65 tackles, but he has played in only seven games the last two years due to injury. Coming off an Achilles injury, Hicks may need a few contests to knock some of the rust off.
Austin Hill, WR, Arizona
Uncertainty rules Arizona’s offense heading into fall camp, as coach Rich Rodriguez is searching for a starter at quarterback and at running back. Regardless of which quarterback takes the first snap, the starter will have a deep – maybe the best in the Pac-12 – group of receivers to target. Hill is the headliner for Rodriguez after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 scores in 2012. He missed 2013 due to an ACL tear, but all signs point to Hill returning to full strength for 2014.
D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida
Humphries is the second starter from Florida’s offense to make this list, as the North Carolina native played in seven games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Gators need more productivity from the quarterback spot, but the offensive line also has to improve after allowing 22 sacks in SEC play last year. Humphries rated as the No. 7 high school prospect by ESPN in the 2012 signing class.
C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss
Combine Johnson’s return with the development of Robert Nkemdiche at tackle, and it’s easy to see why Ole Miss should have one of the top defensive lines in the SEC this season. Johnson played in 13 games in 2012 and recorded 55 tackles, 6.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. Prior to his season-ending ankle injury in 2013, Johnson had 12 tackles (four for a loss). The Mississippi native could be one of the top defensive ends in the SEC this year.
Isaiah Johnson, S, Georgia Tech
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof plans on switching Georgia Tech’s defensive alignment to more of a 4-2-5 look in 2014. And that scheme shift is certainly made easier with the return of Johnson and junior safety Jamal Golden from injury. Johnson recorded 87 stops and one interception in 2012 and is projected to earn third-team All-ACC honors by Athlon Sports in 2014. With a full year to recover from knee surgery, Johnson should be 100 percent for the season opener against Wofford.
Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
Keeton is one of the top quarterbacks outside the Power 5 conferences, and his return from ACL surgery should have Utah State in the mix to win the Mountain West title in 2014. In three seasons with the Aggies, Keeton has tossed 56 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. He has also completed at least 60 percent of his passes in every season and rushed for 619 yards in 2012. Keeton is an Athlon Sports’ first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2014.
Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee
The unquestioned strength of Tennessee’s defense in 2014 is the linebacking corps. Senior A.J. Johnson will push for All-America honors, while Maggitt returns after missing 2013 due to a knee injury. Maggitt recorded 56 stops in 2011 and made 30 tackles (five for a loss) in just nine games in 2012. A healthy Maggitt is critical for the Volunteers’ front seven, as he is expected to slide between defensive end and linebacker this year.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Mark is one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats, and a return to full strength in 2014 would be a huge boost for Northwestern’s offense. In 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also taking two punt returns for scores. The Texas native never had a chance to build on those totals in 2013, as a leg injury suffered in the opener limited him to just four games. If Mark is healthy, another 1,000-yard season is within reach.
Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia
Georgia’s backfield was hit hard by injuries in 2013, as Todd Gurley battled an ankle injury for most of the year, and Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. Marshall averaged 6.5 yards per carry as a true freshman in 2012 and recorded 246 yards prior to his injury in 2013. If Marshall is healthy, Georgia should have one of the top one-two tandems at running back in the nation.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
Mitchell was just one of a handful of key players on Georgia’s team last season that missed time due to injury. Prior to 2013, Mitchell caught 85 receptions in his first two years at Georgia and was poised to be an All-SEC performer. The Georgia native suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter against Clemson and missed the rest of the year. The junior should be one of the top targets for new quarterback Hutson Mason in 2014.
Aaron Morris, OG, Ole Miss
With only two starters returning, the biggest concern for coach Hugh Freeze’s offense is the line. But the news isn’t all bad in Oxford this preseason, as the Rebels will regain the services of Morris for the opener against Boise State. The Mississippi native started all 13 games in 2012 and was expected to be one of the top guards in the SEC in 2013. However, a torn ACL suffered against Vanderbilt ended Morris’ season before it got on track. If Morris is at full strength, the left side of the Rebels’ line is in great shape with Laremy Tunsil anchoring the group at left tackle.
Demetrious Nicholson, CB, Virginia
Nicholson was quietly one of the ACC’s top defensive backs in 2012 but an injury forced him to sit on the sidelines for most of the 2013 season. In five games, Nicholson recorded 20 tackles, four passes defended and one interception. Those numbers were a big drop-off from his 2012 totals, as Nicholson made 56 tackles and defended 15 passes. The Virginia Beach native is a third-team All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Owa Odighizuwa, DE, UCLA
In addition to the emergence of sophomores Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes, the return of Odighizuwa should ensure UCLA’s defense doesn’t suffer a drop in production without linebacker Anthony Barr. Odighizuwa missed 2013 due to a hip injury but played in 38 games from 2010-12. The Oregon native recorded 44 tackles in 2012 and was poised for a breakout year prior to his injury in 2013.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
Phillips was expected to play a key role in stopping the run for Oklahoma's defense in 2013. He anchored the line through the first four weeks with two tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, but a back injury forced Phillips to sit out the remainder of the 2013 season. Without Phillips anchoring the interior, the Sooners finished sixth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) against the run. Assuming Phillips returns to full strength, Oklahoma’s defensive line could be the best in the Big 12 this year.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Even without Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, Texas A&M’s offense is still going to score plenty of points in 2014. The Aggies have a deep collection of skill players, and this group should get even better with a full year from Seals-Jones. He was the No. 25 player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 but played in only two games due to injury. Seals-Jones grabbed three passes for 84 yards and a score last year.
Other Key Players Returning from Injury in 2014:
Mehdi Abdesmad, DT, Boston College
Abdesmad started fast in 2013, recording 17 tackles and two sacks through the first four games. However, a knee injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Expect Abdesmad to push for All-ACC honors in 2014.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was slated for a significant role in the Clemson secondary before a groin injury sidelined him all year. Expect a breakout season from Alexander in 2014.
Rob Crisp, OT, NC State
NC State should be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year. The addition of quarterback Jacoby Brissett should spark the offense, while Crisp returns after missing 10 games due to a concussion. According to his NC State bio, Crisp did not allow a sack in 413 snaps in 2011.
Akeem Daniels, RB, Northern Illinois
Without Jordan Lynch piloting the offense, the Huskies will lean more on their running backs in 2014. Daniels rushed for 447 yards and averaged a whopping 6.6 yards per carry in 2012. After missing 2013 due to a foot injury, Daniels will join Cameron Stingily as key cogs in the Northern Illinois’ rushing attack.
Devin Davis, OT, Oklahoma State
Davis was poised to start at left tackle in 2013 but missed the season due to a knee injury. Getting Davis back to full strength is crucial with just two starters returning for Oklahoma State’s offensive line in 2014.
Peyton Eckert/Dan Feeney, OL, Indiana
Wisconsin and Iowa will likely get the most consideration for the top offensive line spot in the Big Ten this year, but don’t forget about Indiana. The Hoosiers return three starters up front and regain Eckert and Feeney after both missed all of 2013 due to injury. Both players started 12 games in 2012.
George Farmer, WR, USC
Farmer was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for USC, but the Los Angeles native has just five catches in two seasons. With Marqise Lee departing, Farmer – if he’s healthy from a knee injury – could be a key part of the Trojans’ passing game.
Jake Fely, LB, San Diego State
Fely is one of the top defenders in the Mountain West, and his return will help San Diego State push for a division title. Fely was limited to 20 tackles in four games due to injury last season, but he started all 13 games and made 11.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2012.
J.J. Gaines, S, Texas Tech
Gaines is expected to be one of the leaders for Texas Tech’s secondary in 2014. He played in only five games last season due to injury but recorded 16 tackles and two picks.
Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn
Garrett was plagued by foot injuries last season but was expected to play a significant role in Auburn’s defense at the linebacker or star position.
Jamal Golden, S, Georgia Tech
Golden has made only 44 stops in three seasons on defense for the Yellow Jackets, but the Alabama native is one of the ACC’s top return men. In 2012, Golden averaged 28.3 yards per kickoff return and is back to full strength after missing nearly all of 2013 due to injury.
Jay Hughes, S, Mississippi State
Hughes was slated to start at safety last year but suffered a torn Achilles in the opener against Oklahoma State. The Mississippi native played in 13 games and recorded 32 tackles as a sophomore in 2012.
Tyler Hunter, S, Florida State
Hunter’s return bolsters a secondary that is already one of the best – if not No. 1 – in the nation. The Georgia native missed 11 games in 2013 due to a neck injury but played in 14 games in 2012.
Jeremiah Johnson, CB, Maryland
Injuries have hit Maryland hard over the last few years, and 2013 was no exception with Johnson missing 11 games due to a toe injury. In 2012, Johnson recorded 43 tackles and broke up eight passes. If he can stay healthy, Johnson should push for All-Big Ten honors and lead a much-improved Maryland secondary.
Jordan Johnson, CB, BYU
Johnson’s return should bolster a BYU secondary that allowed 19 passing scores in 2013. The Massachusetts native started 12 games in 2012 and recorded 15 pass breakups.
Mike Matulis, OL, South Carolina
Matulis entered last season with 10 career starts and was considered the frontrunner to start at guard. However, Matulis redshirted due to a shoulder injury.
Charone Peake, WR, Clemson
With Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant off to the NFL, Clemson is looking for new faces to emerge at receiver. Peake could be one of the top targets for new quarterback Cole Stoudt after missing nearly all of 2013 with an ACL tear. He caught 25 passes for 172 yards in 2012.
Avery Sebastian, S, California
Sebastian and teammate Stefan McClure missed significant time due to injuries last season, but both players are expected to push for a starting role in 2014. Sebastian played in only two games prior to an Achilles injury and recorded 10 tackles and one interception.
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
Keep an eye on this redshirt freshman in 2014, as Thomas could be one of the ACC’s breakout players. The Miami native played in four games before taking a medical redshirt due to a shoulder injury. Thomas made four tackles (two for a loss) and one sack in limited action.
Jeffrey Whitaker, DT, Auburn
Whitaker appeared on the verge of a breakout year in 2013, but a knee injury sidelined him for the entire season. The Georgia native has 18 career starts and will be a key cog in Auburn’s defensive tackle rotation.