June 28, 2011

Players who can bounce back in '11

The short window of a college football career doesn't give players much time to bounce back from a disappointing season, but every year provides a few comeback stories.

Boise State rose to national prominence in 2006 thanks largely to quarterback Jared Zabransky. After leading the Broncos to an 11-1 record in 2004, he threw 16 interceptions in 2005 as Boise State slipped to 9-4. But he recovered the following season and ranked sixth nationally in passing efficiency while guiding Boise State to a 13-0 record that included a memorable Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma.

More recently, North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates faced major criticism last summer after he ranked 97th in passing efficiency and threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14) in 2009, his third season as a starter. Yates needed to hold off a challenge from Bryn Renner just to hang on to his starting job. But Yates closed his career in style last season by throwing for 3,418 yards and 19 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.

In that spirit, we've put together a list of players who could emerge as this season's version of Yates by bouncing back from disappointing 2010 campaigns.

Of course, there are different kinds of comebacks.

North Carolina State linebacker Nate Irving and Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich exemplified one type of comeback when they delivered huge senior seasons after missing all of 2009 with medical problems. Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert and Florida quarterback John Brantley are former highly touted recruits who will try to live up to expectations this fall after posting disappointing results last fall as first-year starters.

But we didn't want to focus on guys coming back from injury or players who struggled last season as first-year starters. We instead decided to put together a list of 11 players who will try to follow the examples of Zabransky and Yates. These guys didn't perform as well in 2010 as they had in previous seasons. Now they're trying to regain the form they showed earlier in their careers.

Houston WR Tyron Carrier: After accumulating more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons, Carrier caught 53 passes for 480 yards and only one touchdown last season. He had caught a combined 171 passes for 16 touchdowns in 2008 and '09. Houston led the nation in passing in 2009 but wasn't nearly as effective after quarterback Case Keenum was injured early last season. Keenum is back, so can Carrier match his 2008 and 2009 production? The Cougars need this fifth-year senior to return to form as they attempt to replace Patrick Edwards, who caught 71 passes for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

Penn State DE Jack Crawford: Nagging injuries bothered Crawford enough last season that he couldn't build on the momentum he had established in 2009. Crawford had 5.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in '09 while ranking ninth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game. He had just two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss last season while missing three games with a foot injury that required offseason surgery. The return of a healthy Crawford would help Penn State make up for the losses of Ollie Ogbu (8.5 tackles for loss in 2010) and Pete Massaro (3.5 sacks) on the line. Ogbu completed his eligibility last year, while Massaro will miss the 2011 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

USF QB B.J. Daniels: As a redshirt freshman, Daniels seemed on the verge of developing into one of the nation's premier dual-threat quarterbacks. He rushed for 100 yards in four games in 2009 -- finishing with 772 rushing yards and nine touchdowns -- while also throwing for 1,983 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions. But he endured some growing pains last season. Daniels threw 13 interceptions and only 11 touchdown passes, and he rushed for just 259 yards and five touchdowns. Although he ran for 107 yards against Florida in the second game of the season, Daniels never exceeded 35 rushing yards in a game the rest of the season. As a passer, Daniels threw a combined seven interceptions with only one touchdown in losses to Florida and West Virginia. If USF is going to make a serious run at a Big East title, Daniels has to perform better against top teams.

Miami QB Jacory Harris: Early in the 2009 season, Harris was being mentioned as a Heisman contender after leading the Hurricanes to victories over Florida State and Oklahoma. Those heady days seem like a distant memory now. Harris showed plenty of promise in '09 while passing for 3,352 yards and 24 touchdowns. All he needed to do was work on avoiding mistakes, since he also had thrown 17 interceptions. But he took even worse care of the ball last season, with 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. In a Sun Bowl loss to Notre Dame, three of his seven pass attempts were picked off. Before Harris can get a chance to redeem himself, he must beat out Stephen Morris for the starting quarterback job. The winner of that competition might not be announced until shortly before the Hurricanes' Sept. 5 season opener at Maryland.

LSU QB Jordan Jefferson: It's a credit to LSU's program that the Tigers managed to go 11-2 and earn a No. 8 ranking in the final polls last season while getting so little production from their quarterback. After throwing 17 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 2009, Jefferson was picked off 10 times and threw just seven touchdown passes last season. He ranked 92nd nationally in passing efficiency. Although he rushed for 450 yards and seven touchdowns last season -- up from 171 yards and one touchdown in '09 -- his improved production as a runner couldn't compensate for his passing problems. Jefferson withstood a challenge from JC transfer Zach Mettenberger and exited spring practice as LSU's clear-cut starting quarterback. The Tigers will head into the season with a top-five ranking, but they won't compete for a national title if Jefferson plays as poorly as he did last season.

Florida OT Xavier Nixon: Rated as the No. 37 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Nixon performed so well after arriving on campus that the Gators abandoned plans to redshirt him and instead started him for the last five games of the season. He was the first true freshman to start at left tackle for the Gators since Reggie Green in 1992, and he was doing it for a team that was ranked first in the nation. Nixon couldn't build on that success last season. Although he started eight games, he didn't show much improvement for an offense that sputtered all season. Nixon will head into fall drills as the starting right tackle, and he must perform better this season as Florida replaces four starters on the offensive line.

Oregon State OT Michael Philipp: As the lone four-star prospect in Oregon State's 2009 recruiting class, Philipp arrived on campus with high expectations. He wasted no time living up to them. Philipp was named the Beavers' starting left tackle during preseason camp, making him the first Oregon State true freshman to start on the offensive line since 1997. He even made a couple of freshman All-America teams. But he struggled through an injury-riddled sophomore season in which he broke his nose and later missed the Beavers' final three games with a sprained ankle. Philipp now is moving to right tackle, where he spent most of spring practice competing with junior Colin Kelly for a starting role.

Temple DE Adrian Robinson: One of the prime catalysts of Temple's recent resurgence, Robinson was named the Mid-American Conference's defensive player of the year in 2009. He forced five fumbles and led the MAC with 14 sacks that season. Robinson didn't get to the quarterback nearly as often last season. Although he started all 12 games for the Owls, he only managed 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The Owls need Robinson to become dominant again this season as they attempt to replace four All-MAC selections on defense, including first-round draft pick Muhammad Wilkinson.

Air Force K Erik Soderberg: As a sophomore in 2009, Soderberg went 22-of-30 on field-goal attempts and earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. His 22 field goals led the conference and represented the second-highest single-season total in school history. It represented a stunning reversal of fortune last season when Soderberg went just 5-of-10 on field goals and lost his job late in the season to Zack Bell. Soderberg's longest successful field goal of the season was from only 30 yards out. Bell has completed his eligibility, so Soderberg is expected to regain his status as Air Force's main kicker. The Falcons believe they can challenge Boise State and TCU for the MWC title, but they'll need to have faith that Soderberg can make a kick in a crucial situation.

Southern Miss LBs Ronnie Thornton and Korey Williams: Thornton and Williams didn't have bad seasons in 2010 by any stretch. They combined for 154 overall tackles -- 21.5 for loss -- and Williams was an honorable mention All-Conference USA selection. But both were much more productive in 2009. Williams went from 121 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2009 to 93 tackles and three sacks in 2010. Thornton made 61 tackles last season after recording 114 in '09. The Golden Eagles need more from them. Williams in particular has a good chance of shining in Southern Miss' new 4-2-5 base defense. Thornton also should have a big role, though he could end up splitting playing time with Jamie Collins.

Arizona CB Trevin Wade: After picking off five passes and earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2009, Wade wasn't nearly as effective last season. Although Wade scored on an 85-yard interception return in a victory over Iowa, that play represented one of his few highlights in an otherwise forgettable season. He finished the year with only the one interception and was benched for one game in favor of true freshman Shaquille Richardson. A thigh injury may have contributed to Wade's struggles last season. Arizona needs Wade to regain his 2009 form to boost a secondary reeling from an injury to free safety Adam Hall, who could miss much of this season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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