Georgia Tech's Jamal Golden ended 2012 on a special teams tear, as the only player in the NCAA to rank in the top 10 nationally in kickoff returns and punt returns.
His hopes were high headed in 2013.
Then he hurt his shoulder in September and missed the rest of the season.
While he was out, Golden watched the ACC light it up nationally in the specialists department. Ryan Switzer ended up returning five punts for touchdowns at North Carolina, earning All-America honors.
Kermit Whitfield ended the season with the most famous kickoff return of the year against Auburn, helping Florida State win the national championship game.
You see why Golden has been overlooked in the return department headed into 2014. Switzer, Whitfield, Crowder and Edwards have all earned preseason All-America recognition based on their performances a year ago. Switzer and Crowder finished in the top 10 in the nation in punt returns; Whitfield, Edwards and Coley finished in the top 25 in the nation in kickoff returns.
Golden had eight total returns in his injury-shortened 2013, but he has worked extensively to get back into form headed into fall camp. Plus, watching what his counterparts did last season has added some extra juice to his training.
"Being the best is always a motivation," Golden said in a recent phone interview. "Ryan Switzer doing that, I praise him -- that’s a good job on his part. I’m just going to try to come back and do what I do best and help my team get the 'W' returning or on defense."
Golden is slated to start at safety for the Yellow Jackets and resume his role as both punt returner and kick returner. Doing both return jobs is pretty rare -- only Coley and NC State's Rashad Smith handled both duties regularly a season ago. With Golden out, Georgia Tech primarily relied on DeAndre Smelter to handle punt returns and Jemea Thomas and Lynn Griffin to handle kick returns.
As Golden has rounded himself back into shape following his shoulder injury, he had an opportunity to really strengthen his legs. Golden believes that added strength has allowed him to be even faster when returning kicks.
He also had an opportunity to study more film. Golden started breaking down the tendencies of his opponents, both on defense and special teams. Now he can identify how a punter will kick based on foot position. He has continued to watch film -- both as a safety and as a returner -- during the offseason. He also works on fielding kickoffs and punts with Ryan Rodwell and Harrison Butker. Fielding punts is a bit trickier because the ball is more unpredictable, and Golden says he is nearly back into his groove with a little more than a month to go before fall practice.
"I'm just ready for camp to start up," Golden said. "It's been a long time since Sept. 21. I've been counting down the months."
Any big plans for his return to the field?
"I’ll try to put on a show for you," Golden said.
Indeed, it could be another show-stopping year for special teams across the ACC.
Here is a look at the top ACC return specialists from a year ago, and where Golden would have ranked based on his 2012 stats:
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina, 20.9 ypr
Jamison Crowder, Duke, 16.0 ypr
Golden, 14.6 ypr
Kermit Whitfield, Florida State, 36.4 ypr
DeVon Edwards, Duke, 30.2 ypr
Golden, 28.4 ypr
Stacy Coley, Miami, 25.9 ypr