Ondre Pipkins’ first two years at Michigan have been anything but easy.
In 2012, the true freshman suffered a neck injury during fall practice that severely compromised his performance for the rest of the year.
Showing courage by simply getting back into the swing of things, the former 247Sports 4-star recruit never really found a groove.
Neck injuries and numb extremities can make one a bit timid.
He gets a pass—not his fault.
Will Ondre Pipkins be a key starter in 2014?
So, as luck would have it, he was primed to climb a few rungs on Greg Mattison’s defensive ladder in 2013—but he was stalled by an ACL injury suffered against Minnesota, causing him to miss the rest of the year and likely ponder the classic “what-ifs?”
Either some unknown, dark and powerful force has it against Pipkins, or he's been a steady victim of really bad luck.
That being said, the junior is once again being talked about as a possible big-time contributor, which is something the D-line could certainly use.
He’s come too far to turn back. The form Kansas City, Mo., Park Hill standout has simply put too much effort into his career for it to idle.
This season can’t be a "could" year for Pipkins.
No, it must be a "will" year.
But is that realistic?
Is the one-time No. 6 DT in the nation destined to become a decoration on the sideline, or is he bound for greatness as a staple of defense?
Only Pipkins can say for sure—and he better get going, for time is of the essence.
Living on the Comeback Trail
So far, Pipkins has strung together a pair of letterman seasons and 18 appearances. Ideally, he'd have at least 18 starts by now, not appearances.
But again, injuries have gotten the best of him to this point. For that reason, it's somewhat difficult to accurately project season numbers for a player who's yet to complete a full schedule.
As the head coach, Brady Hoke doesn't often have one-on-one contact with each player on a daily basis—but as the D-line coach, he sees Pipkins every day.
Having Hoke's motivation on a more personal and consistent level could easily fuel Pipkins.
Evidenced by the following video from Matt Pargoff of Maize and Blue News, the two share a close bond and frequently get together to discuss specifics.
Pipkins' attitude is a plus. He's never come across as a player who'll play the sympathy card. If he enters 2014 with the same focus and mindset, there shouldn't be any major concerns about his drive, potential or performance.
Personal observations (feel free to comment with your predictions)
Quinton Washington graduated. Richard Ash left the program—the D-line is in need of help, and Pipkins is in prime position to capitalize on the opportunity.
Tom Strobel, Willie Henry and Chris Wormley should also be involved in the conversation, making for a well-rounded quartet come fall. And that's not including young bucks such as Bryan Mone and Henry Poggi.
Steady Steps or Major Leaps?
As long as progress is made, Hoke will be happy.
That being said, Pipkins can't afford to take baby steps. No, "Pee-Wee" must take large strides if he's to live up to at least half of his pre-college hype. As one of Hoke's first high-profile recruits, the pressure is on Pipkins.
For starters, Hoke's been dinged for not developing defensive linemen at Michigan. He's had top classes, but, for the most part, results have been few and far between.
Pipkins may turn into a "told you so" for Hoke—who could actually use a couple of those.
But more importantly, he can be a reliable guy on the line, and really, that's all the Wolverines need.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverine football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81