10 College Football Teams and Players Primed for Huge Bounceback Years in 2014

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

10 College Football Teams and Players Primed for Huge Bounceback Years in 2014

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    Following an academic suspension, Notre Dame's Everett Golson is back and ready to prove himself this fall.
    Following an academic suspension, Notre Dame's Everett Golson is back and ready to prove himself this fall.Joe Raymond

    With spring football in full swing across the nation, another spring tradition is also well underway.

    Each college football season brings surprises and disappointments, good and bad, yin and yang.

    Spring brings hope that last fall’s mistakes and downfalls can be erased, replaced by hope and progress toward success that lies just over the bend.

    Coaches and players are positive. Everything is in front of them. This is the year.

    And why not believe it? Spring is all about renewal and fresh excitement.

    For various reasons, these players and programs suffered through disappointing 2013 seasons. But they believe that this fall will be different.

    Here are 10 players and programs primed for huge bounceback years in 2014.

     

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Stefon Diggs, Maryland Receiver

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    Stefon Diggs is a special all-around talent.
    Stefon Diggs is a special all-around talent.Chuck Burton

    Stefon Diggs is one of college football’s most exciting all-around talents and should get plenty of attention from opposing defenses this fall if he is fully healthy.

    He has displayed impressive skills, speed and athleticism in each of his first two collegiate seasons, piling up 2,808 all-purpose yards.

    In 2012, Diggs made 54 receptions for 848 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games.

    Last fall, he was on pace to be even better. In seven games, Diggs had 34 receptions for 587 yards (averaging 17.3 yards per reception, up from 15.7 as a freshman), but his season ended following a broken right fibula suffered against Wake Forest.

    The Terrapins still made a bowl game, but with a healthy Diggs catching passes from C.J. Brown, they could be far scarier to Big Ten foes this fall.

    Diggs is also an excellent kick returner (he had 26 returns for 713 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, including a 100-yard touchdown return), and if he’s healthy, he can be used in a multitude of ways.

Devonte Fields, TCU Defensive End

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    Devonte Fields hopes to repeat his 2012 season, not his 2013 slate.
    Devonte Fields hopes to repeat his 2012 season, not his 2013 slate.Jack Plunkett

    The past year-plus hasn’t been kind to Fields. Last May, TCU coach Gary Patterson slapped Devonte Fields with a two-game suspension to open the season (which was eventually cut to 1.5 games).

    He played through a foot injury, making only two tackles in two games before ending his season in October and seeking a medical redshirt, which was granted.

    It was a steep fall off from an excellent freshman season. In 2012, Fields was named the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year and was a first team All-Big 12 pick, making 53 tackles with 18.5 for loss and 10 sacks.

    In January, he was attacked, beaten and robbed at gunpoint while walking home. If Fields has his off-the-field life in order, he is a fearsome pass-rusher with great athleticism and speed.

    If he’s healthy and focused, he’ll be a big reason why TCU will be favored to improve from last season’s 4-8 record.

Florida

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    If he is healthy, Jeff Driskel will give Florida's offense a new dimension this fall.
    If he is healthy, Jeff Driskel will give Florida's offense a new dimension this fall.John Raoux

    Last fall was one to forget, in every way, for Florida. The Gators entered 2013 with momentum following an 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl appearance in 2012, but that quickly dissolved.

    Junior starting quarterback Jeff Driskel broke a bone in his right leg in the season’s third game against Tennessee ending his year. Florida lost 15 players (10 starters) to season-ending injuries, with Driskel, starting tailback Matt Jones and starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley the most notable.

    Driskel’s backup quarterbacks were highly ineffective. Florida wound up 113th nationally in total offense (316.7 yards per game), 112th nationally in scoring offense (18.8 points per game) and 107th in passing offense (170.9 ypg).

    The low point?

    A home loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, which saw the Eagles come into The Swamp and win without completing so much as a single pass.

    Head coach Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease, replacing him with Duke’s Kurt Roper. Roper is installing an uptempo spread offense style led by the dual-threat Driskel, who’ll return for his redshirt junior season.

    Florida lost a trio of defensive stalwarts early to the NFL draft in linebacker Ronald Powell and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but if Driskel and Jones are healthy, the offense should be significantly improved.

    The Gators face road tests at Alabama and Tennessee and also draw LSU from the SEC West (the Tigers will visit The Swamp). However, Florida will welcome SEC East rivals South Carolina and Missouri to Gainesville and will have its typical neutral-site game against Georgia in Jacksonville.

    An SEC championship might be a bridge too far, but Florida should be significantly improved this fall.

Everett Golson, Notre Dame Quarterback

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    A focused Everett Golson could give Notre Dame a big boost this fall.
    A focused Everett Golson could give Notre Dame a big boost this fall.Wilfredo Lee

    While Everett Golson wasn’t the only reason Notre Dame made a run to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012, his poise in leading the Fighting Irish’s offense was impressive.

    Golson threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Notre Dame had a perfect regular season before falling to Alabama in the title game. Golson was a dual threat, adding 285 rushing yards.

    But his 2013 season ended before it began. Golson was suspended from Notre Dame for the fall semester for academic misconduct, forcing the Irish to turn to Tommy Rees (3,257 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions). Rees was one-dimensional, however, finishing with negative-56 rushing yards.

    Golson is back at Notre Dame this spring and is the favorite to beat out sophomore Malik Zaire for his old job.

    If Golson can recover his old form following a year off and Notre Dame’s defense can improve under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (who must replace departed stalwarts in defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix, as well as graduated senior linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese), the Fighting Irish could build on 2013’s 9-4 record.

Tyler Hunter, Florida State Safety

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    Tyler Hunter's return will bolster Florida State's secondary.
    Tyler Hunter's return will bolster Florida State's secondary.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Florida State’s BCS title was bittersweet for Tyler Hunter. After suffering numbness in his hands after making a tackle in September, the talented starting safety missed the rest of the season after undergoing major neck surgery.

    Doctors removed bulging discs from his neck and inserted a metal plate to correct cervical spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spine. He earned a starting job last fall and is aiming to regain it, although he is not going through contact drills this spring, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

    With the graduation of secondary standouts Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State has openings up for grabs. If Hunter proves he is healthy, the hard-hitting safety could prove to be a major bounceback player in 2014.

Duke Johnson, Miami Tailback

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    Duke Johnson was one of the ACC's best tailbacks in 2013.
    Duke Johnson was one of the ACC's best tailbacks in 2013.Phil Sears

    Duke Johnson looked ready to build on an impressive freshman season last year, piling up 823 yards and six rushing touchdowns through six games. Miami rose as high as No. 7 in the polls entering a Nov. 2 visit to Florida State.

    That night, Johnson’s season (and Miami’s) came crashing down in a 41-14 defeat. While Johnson rushed for 97 yards on 23 carries, he suffered a fractured ankle, which ended his season.

    Minus Johnson in the backfield, the Hurricanes offense lost a dimension. Miami went 2-3 the rest of the way, finishing the season with a sobering 36-9 Russell Athletic Bowl defeat to Louisville.

    Johnson’s absence wasn’t the entire problem (the Hurricanes allowed 42, 48 and 36 points in their defeats and 26 and 31 points in wins over Virginia and Pitt), but it certainly didn’t help.

    He is expected to be healthy for the 2014 season, and having his explosive nature in the backfield can only help Miami.

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M Wide Receiver

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    Ricky Seals-Jones had an impressive debut, but a knee injury ended his 2013 almost before it began.
    Ricky Seals-Jones had an impressive debut, but a knee injury ended his 2013 almost before it began.Eric Gay

    With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M had one of the nation’s most explosive offenses in 2013. But imagine how good it could have been with a full season from Ricky Seals-Jones.

    The freshman 5-star recruit had an impressive collegiate debut, catching three passes for 84 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown, in the season opener against Rice.

    But Seals-Jones hurt a knee while being hit from behind on the touchdown and didn’t play again the rest of the season. He underwent surgery and received a medical redshirt.

    At 6’5”, 230 pounds, Seals-Jones has impressive speed and physicality and can stretch a defense vertically, as he showed against Rice. He is healthy and participating in spring practice.

    With standout Mike Evans gone to the NFL, the redshirt freshman will give the winner of A&M’s quarterback derby an imposing target to work with this fall.

Chuckie Keeton, Utah State Quarterback

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    Chuckie Keeton is a dynamic under-the-radar quarterback.
    Chuckie Keeton is a dynamic under-the-radar quarterback.Marcio Jose Sanchez

    Chuckie Keeton might be the best player you’ve never heard of. That was in the process of changing last fall: Keeton was off to a spectacular start with 1,362 yards passing and 17 touchdowns against one interception through five games. His season had a sudden end, however, in Game 6 against BYU.

    He was hit by a BYU tackler and suffered a torn ACL and MCL in a knee, ending his 2013 season.

    He is rehabbing the knee and going through non-contact drills during spring practice, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

    Keeton needs to stay healthy to get the nation’s attention. He has played only 25 of a possible 40 games in his collegiate career. Utah State finished 9-5 last season, reaching the WAC title game before beating Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Keith Marshall, Georgia Tailback

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    Keith Marshall is among college football's best tailbacks when healthy.
    Keith Marshall is among college football's best tailbacks when healthy.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    With Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley in the fold, Georgia has one of the nation’s top backfields.

    That is, when both are healthy.

    That wasn’t the case last season.

    Gurley was hobbled with various injuries, and Marshall, a former 5-star signee in his own right, had his season end Oct. 7 when he left the Tennessee game with a torn right ACL. He was not able to undergo surgery on the knee until mid November.

    At the same time, he underwent minor surgery on his left knee, briefly leaving him in a wheelchair.

    There were questions about whether he would take a redshirt in 2014, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports his recovery is ahead of schedule and he is going through non-contact drills during spring practice.

    Assuming Marshall is fully recovered and able to play this fall, he’d add another dimension of speed to the Bulldogs’ backfield to go with Gurley’s blend of speed and power. Over the past two seasons, he has 1,005 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

    If Gurley and Marshall are both on the field this fall, it’ll be a huge plus for new starting quarterback Hutson Mason.

Northwestern

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    Venric Mark will give Northwestern a huge boost this fall.
    Venric Mark will give Northwestern a huge boost this fall.Nam Y. Huh

    Murphy’s Law defined Northwestern football last fall.

    The Wildcats entered the season riding a five-year postseason streak and brought a solid group back from a team that went 10-3 in 2012.

    But Pat Fitzgerald’s group was positively beset by bad luck and close defeats in a 5-7 season.

    In a four-game stretch that ran from mid October to mid November, the Wildcats lost by three points against Minnesota, lost in overtime at Iowa, lost in triple overtime to Michigan after the Wolverines kicked a game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation and lost 27-24 at Nebraska when the Cornhuskers pulled off a final-play Hail Mary.

    Turn one of those games around, and Northwestern is 6-6 and bowl-eligible. Instead, it was a long, long winter in Evanston.

    Two of the Wildcats’ top offensive weapons were sidelined by injuries. Senior quarterback Kain Colter was hobbled all season by injuries, missing two games and parts of others. His passing yards fell from 872 as a junior to 577 as a senior.

    Dynamic tailback Venric Mark (who rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012) received a medical redshirt due to an ankle injury and will return this fall for his senior season.

    Rising senior Trevor Siemian, who filled in for Colter last fall, will return as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.

    Beyond Colter, wideout Rashad Lawrence, middle linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Tyler Scott are the only major losses.

    Northwestern gets Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin at home and does not play Ohio State or Michigan State this fall. The Wildcats are a prime turnaround candidate.