MURPHY — Josh Faulkner has been on the comeback trail ever since he suffered a compound fracture of his right ankle in a car wreck in December of 2010.
"At one point, there was talk of amputation," said Hidden Valley football coach Jim Figoni.
Faulkner, a standout sophomore running back, had amassed more than 100 yards rushing in the second half to ignite a 33-24 victory over rival North Valley two months earlier and was expected to be one of the Mustangs' best players last season.
But the accident sidelined Faulkner for the entire 2011 campaign. It was also a lost season for Hidden Valley, which stumbled to a 3-7 record on the field and then had its three wins wiped from the books for using an in ineligible player who had transferred to the school. The violation occurred because of a clerical error, Figoni said.
Faulkner and the Mustangs are eager for a fresh start. With 10 starters back on offense, including strong-armed senior quarterback Kevin Gulbransen, and seven on defense, Hidden Valley has the look of a league-championship contender.
"We were a junior-dominated team last season, and it was baptism by fire," said Figoni. "Those kids worked hard in the offseason and have come back bigger, stronger and faster.
"And maybe the best thing is, there are no prima donnas. Just a bunch of hard-working kids who play for each other."
Figoni opened up Hidden Valley's offense last season to showcase the passing skills of Gulbransen. But he's hinting at a partial return to the Mustangs' teeth-rattling ground game of yore. And why not? HV returns four of its five offensive linemen — center Devin Hinthorne, guard Anthony Jarvis and tackles Bryan Pepples and Chance Biles. The foursome averages 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds.
Sophomore Duke York, no small fry himself at 6-2, 260, is battling 220-pound Chris Meyer for the other starting position up front.
"The goal is to have a 50-50 balance, but yeah, we're going to bring back some ground chuck," said Figoni. "We've got guys (in the line) who can bench press 300 (pounds) and squat 400, and we're going to ride those horses."
Jackson Howard, Brad Hyatt, Zach Hallmark, A.J. Potts and Faulkner are expected to shoulder the load at running back. Faulkner would surely get the bulk of the carries if he were 100 percent.
"We're hoping he can be the feel-good story of the year, but he still has some limitations," said Figoni.
Gulbransen, meanwhile,could be destined for a big season if his teammates can hold on to his high-velocity throws.
"Our problem is catching him because he's got a rocket for an arm," said Figoni, adding that Gulbransen spends far more time in the weight room than the average quarterback. "But we're going to give him opportunities to succeed."
Defensively, Jarvis, Biles and Pebbles return in the trenches, Hyatt and Bryce Ausland are back at linebacker and Joe Wardle has experience at cornerback. The secondary is a bit of a concern, but Figoni helped fortify it by moving Gulbransen from linebacker to safety.
"We've got seven guys back on defense with a lot of experience," said Figoni.
While last season's struggles seem like ancient history, the team suffered its worst tragedy on Aug. 11 when wide receiver Chase Davidson drowned in an irrigation pipe. His twin brother, Colton, remains on the squad.