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.