Georgia opened the 2008 season as the top-ranked team in the nation, but it didn't take long to realize the Bulldogs might not live up to those lofty expectations.
The first blow to Georgia's title hopes came in spring practice when offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant suffered a knee injury that would knock him out for the season. The second shoe dropped in the first quarter of the season opener, when defensive tackle Jeff Owens sustained his own season-ending knee injury.
Those injuries damaged Georgia significantly on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and the Bulldogs never really recovered.
Sturdivant and Owens are returning to the lineup this season, and it would come as little surprise if Georgia makes a transition from 2008 underachiever to 2009 overachiever.
Owens and Sturdivant aren't the only significant players coming back to action after missing the majority of the 2008 season. Penn State and Pittsburgh also will benefit from the return of two players who sat out most of last season with injuries.
As we begin our countdown to kickoff of the 2009 season, we decided to put together a list of key players who are returning to action after missing most of last season. In case you're wondering why some notable names are missing, keep in mind that we limited this list to guys who played no more than three games last season. That criterion knocked Washington quarterback Jake Locker, Oklahoma linebacker Ryan Reynolds, New Mexico quarterback Donovan Porterie and North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates from consideration.
Boston College DE Alex Albright: Two years ago, Albright earned honorable mention All-ACC honors and collected 8.5 sacks despite missing two games with a broken left forearm. He only played two games last season. Albright had a sack and a fumble recovery in those games before a neck injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Albright now will team with Austin Giles and Jim Ramella to give Boston College a talented trio of ends. The Eagles need big production from their ends as they attempt to replace first-round draft pick B.J. Raji and second-round pick Ron Brace at tackle.
N.C. State RB Toney Baker: After leading the Wolfpack with 688 rushing yards in 2006, Baker suffered a knee injury in the 2007 season opener and hasn't played since. Even after missing almost two seasons, Baker ranks sixth among all active ACC players with 1,272 career rushing yards. After two surgeries on his right knee, Baker has recovered to the point that he participated in full-contact drills this spring. His return should provide the Wolfpack with some depth in the backfield behind Jamelle Eugene, who has his own history of injury problems.
Colorado CB Benjamin Burney: This former free safety started all 13 games at cornerback in 2007 and tied for the lead among all Colorado defenders by playing 796 snaps. He had shoulder surgery after the season and didn't play in '08. Burney returns this season and should team with returning cornerbacks Cha'pelle Brown and Jimmy Smith to upgrade the Buffaloes' secondary.
Mississippi State LB Jamar Chaney: The Bulldogs' leading tackler in 2007 broke his left leg on the second-to-last play of the '08 season opener and missed the rest of the season. Chaney had 89 tackles in 2007 to earn second-team All-SEC honors while helping Mississippi State win the Liberty Bowl. Without Chaney last season, the Bulldogs went 4-8 and ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense. Chaney recovered from the injury well enough to work out at full speed throughout spring practice.
Notre Dame OT Paul Duncan: After starting all 12 games - two at left tackle and 10 at right tackle - for Notre Dame two years ago, Duncan sat out the '08 season to recover from surgery on his right hip. He has returned to action as a fifth-year senior and likely will open the season as the Irish's starting left tackle. Notre Dame's chances of contending for a BCS bid and preserving Charlie Weis' job could depend on whether Duncan and his linemates protect quarterback Jimmy Clausen and open up enough holes to revive an Irish rushing attack that has struggled the past two seasons.
Pittsburgh LBs Adam Gunn and Shane Murray: Gunn and Murray finished the 2007 season as two of Pittsburgh's three leading tacklers, but each played only one game last season. Murray ranked second on the team with 60 tackles and tied for the Big East lead in forced fumbles per game two years ago while starting at weakside linebacker. He injured his right knee in the preseason and played just one series of a single game before sitting out the rest of last season. Gunn started at strongside linebacker two years ago and ranked third on the team with 59 tackles, but he suffered a season-ending neck injury in the opening game against Bowling Green last year. Gunn received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and likely will replace the departed Scott McKillop as the Panthers' middle linebacker this season.
Florida Atlantic TE Jason Harmon: Former Florida star Cornelius Ingram wasn't the only talented tight end from the Sunshine State to sit out the '08 season. Harmon caught 63 passes for 825 yards and five touchdowns two years ago, but he had knee surgery in the spring and didn't play at all last season. Harmon spent the season working in the equipment room because it allowed him to travel with his teammates. If Harmon regains his 2007 form, he should team with Jamari Grant to give FAU an outstanding tandem at tight end. Grant caught 45 passes for 642 yards and four touchdowns in Harmon's absence last season.
Penn State DE Jerome Hayes and LB Sean Lee: Lee, a senior, probably is the best overall player on this list. He made 90 tackles in 2006 and followed that up with 138 tackles - the fifth-highest single-season total in school history - in 2007. But he missed the '08 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during spring practice. If Lee recaptures his 2008 form, he could emerge as a Butkus Award candidate and could end his career by joining former teammates Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny as the three most prolific tacklers in Penn State history. Hayes, who already was recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, tore the ACL in his left knee while making his first career start last September against Oregon State. The Nittany Lions are hoping he can stay healthy this season and fill the pass-rushing void created by the departures of Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans.
Nevada RB Luke Lippincott: After rushing for 1,420 yards and 18 touchdowns to earn first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors two years ago, Lippincott suffered a season-ending knee injury in Nevada's second game last season. The NCAA granted Lippincott a sixth year of eligibility, which could give the Wolf Pack one of the nation's most dynamic rushing attacks this season. Vai Taua replaced Lippincott last season and rushed for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns. Lippincott's return gives Nevada three players who have delivered 1,000-yard seasons: Lippincott, Taua and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Georgia DT Jeff Owens and OT Trinton Sturdivant: How much could the return of these two linemen mean to the Bulldogs? Consider that both players earned preseason second-team All-SEC honors even though neither played a full game last season. Sturdivant started at left tackle as a true freshman two years ago, but he missed the '08 season with an injured left knee. Owens recorded 26 tackles each in 2006 and '07, but he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of a season-opening victory over Georgia Southern and sat out the rest of last season. Both players missed spring practice while recovering from their injuries, but they're expected to be ready for the start of the season.
UCLA TE Logan Paulsen: Although this fifth-year senior has caught just 42 passes in his college career, those numbers don't accurately measure his value to the team. Paulsen commands such respect that teammates selected him as a captain this season even though he played just one game last season. Paulsen was making his 23rd consecutive start in last year's season opener when he fractured his right foot, an injury that knocked him out for the rest of the season. Ryan Moya performed well after Paulsen went down last season, so UCLA enters the fall with two legitimate All-Pac-10 candidates at tight end.
Miami S Randy Phillips: A team that relies so heavily on underclassmen always could use the leadership of a fifth-year senior. That's the role Phillips should play for Miami this season. Phillips played just two games last year before having leg surgery and missing the rest of the season. The secondary wasn't quite the same without him. Phillips provides versatility because of his ability to play cornerback and safety. He also provides the maturity that comes from having played in 34 games over the past four years. His return should boost a defense that recorded just four interceptions last season.
Iowa G Dace Richardson: After battling injuries for most of his entire career, Richardson is hoping he can play a full season without getting hurt. Richardson spent much of the 2006 season as Iowa's starting left tackle, but even then he was having trouble staying healthy. He then missed much of the 2007 season and sat out the '08 campaign with a knee injury. Richardson exited spring practice as the Hawkeyes' starting left guard.
Purdue RB Jaycen Taylor: Taylor rushed for 560 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry two years ago despite missing four weeks with a broken arm, but he tore an ACL in training camp last summer and missed the season. Now that Kory Sheets has completed his college career, a healthy Taylor could emerge as Purdue's primary ball carrier this season. Taylor has the most experience of any of the candidates and owns an impressive career average of 5.6 yards per carry.
West Virginia LB Reed Williams: After overcoming an elbow sprain to compile a team-high 107 tackles in 2007, Williams had surgery on each of his shoulders during the offseason and wasn't quite the same last season. Williams played just two games in '08 before deciding to redshirt and come back in 2009. The fifth-year senior will open the season as the Mountaineers' starting middle linebacker. If he stays healthy, Williams should be one of the top defensive players in the Big East. He was named the defensive MVP of the Mountaineers' Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma two years ago.