Checking in on the 16 biggest college football stars returning from injury in 2016.
Before spring drills began, we provided a snapshot of some of the game’s most important players who were looking to rally back from injuries that felled them for all or most of 2015. Now that months have passed, it’s time to circle back to evaluate how each would-be star’s recovery is coming along ahead of fall camp.
16. WR Mike Dudek, Illinois
Dudek was supposed to be Wes Lunt’s favorite target in 2015. Instead, the receiver never played a down after being stricken by an ACL tear last spring.
In 2014, Dudek became just the eighth player in school history to amass more than a 1,000 yards receiving … as a freshman. And since the injury happened so early in the year, the sophomore will be raring to go this spring to help offset some of the lost production from Geronimo Allison’s graduation.
Dudek has to be one of the unluckiest players in college football. Poised for his long-awaited return, he suffered the same injury around the same time of year. And he’ll have to deal with the same prognosis, an entire season on the shelf as he rehabs an ACL tear in his right knee.
15. CB Fabian Moreau, UCLA
There was a time not long ago that Jim Mora pegged Moreau as a surefire NFL target. The senior has one more year to validate his coach’s prediction.
Moreau’s anticipated breakout year never happened, derailed by a broken foot suffered last September. The recipient of a medical redshirt, he plans to use his fifth season in Westwood to recapture momentum by blooming into one of the Pac-12’s top cover corners.
Still recovering from a tricky Lisfranc injury, Moreau missed spring practice. However, the Bruins are confident the senior will be ready to resume his career when the squad reconvenes in August. So confident, in fact, that former all-league corner Ishmael Adams was moved to offense to support the wide receivers.
14. DT Harold Brantley, Missouri
Fortunately, Brantley survived a rollover car crash last June. But a series of injuries ended any hopes of suiting up for his junior year.
Brantley was one of Mizzou’s breakout stars of 2014, earning honorable mention All-SEC in his debut as a full-timer. While it’s been a long and frustrating recovery for the Tiger, he hopes to recapture the form he had before his world was literally turned upside down on a stretch of Highway 63 in Missouri.
Brantley is inching closer to a miraculous return after almost losing his life last summer. While there’s still a lot of work left to be done, in the trainer’s room and the classroom, first-year head coach Barry Odom is hopeful Brantley can rejoin an already fantastic unit at D-Line Zou.
13. DT Jarron Jones, Notre Dame
Conditioning and rust could be issues for Jones, who hasn’t worn pads in a very long time.
The Rochester, N.Y. senior not only missed all of last season to a torn MCL, but also the end of 2014 with a foot injury. Before going down as a junior, he’d made 40 stops and 7.5 tackles for loss, impressive output for a 6-5, 315-pound interior lineman. If he stays healthy in 2016, Jones has the talent to emerge as an Irish star in 2016.
Jones is coming along well as he prepares for what will be a salary run finale in South Bend. While his knee is no longer a problem, he still needs to get his head right when the team returns to practice. Jones was a little tentative in April, not uncommon after a player suffers through an injury and lengthy recovery period.
12. DT Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
Kenny Clark left early for the NFL Draft. Vanderdoes, though, will be back this fall, anchoring the interior of the Bruin defensive line.
Vanderdoes played just one game of his junior year before tearing his ACL while celebrating a touchdown. It was a severe setback for a player destined to hit the tarmac in 2015. Back at full strength, Vanderdoes hopes to put his combination of strength and quickness on display as a senior.
It’ll be a particularly critical August for Vanderdoes since he sat out the spring to continue nursing his knee injury. While everyone associated with the team is convinced he’ll be ready for the opener at Texas A&M, there’s a thick layer of rust that’ll need to be shaken off over the next couple of months.
11. RB Tarean Folston, Notre Dame
If you liked C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams a year ago, you’re going to love a healthy Folston.
Prosise and Adams combined for almost 2,000 yards on the ground, but neither began the year as the starter. Folston was Notre Dame’s premier back before tearing right knee ligaments in the opener. Although he’s getting close to 100%, it’s unlikely—and unnecessary—that the Irish will push him too hard this spring.
Although Folston was fully healed during the spring, the Irish saw no need to push him harder than necessary. However, he’ll be moving at full speed in the summer, as he attempts to outplay Adams in the battle for first-team reps out of the backfield.
10. LB Ed Davis, Michigan State
The plan in 2015 was for Davis to become the new tone-setter of Mark Dantonio’s defense. Fate, though, had a different plan for the linebacker and the Spartans.
Davis was forced to lead from the sidelines in 2015, the result of a season-ending knee injury suffered on Aug. 12. Now, he’s hoping to return for his sixth season in East Lansing, prepared to infuse his experience and energy into the second level of the defense.
Davis is physically ready to join the Spartans, but his academic situation remains a work in progress. He must first graduate to apply for that sixth year of eligibility. However, he still has two summer courses left, the last of which ends Aug. 18. Even if the NCAA issues a thumbs up, Davis will have to play catch-up after missing a couple of weeks of practice.
9. DE James McFarland, TCU
From start to finish, the Horned Frogs were snakebitten by injuries in 2015. McFarland, as a case in point.
McFarland was TCU’s best pass rusher of 2014, collecting seven sacks and a Defensive MVP nod in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But a foot injury kept him from building on a strong junior year. With McFarland, among others, expected to return to the field this fall, the Frogs are banking on being far deeper on defense than they were a year ago.
McFarland returned to the field in the spring, showing flashes of the player who appeared capable of blowing up in 2015. He and Josh Carraway are poised to form one of the premier pass-rushing tandems in the Big 12, if not the entire country.
8. DT Darius Hamilton, Rutgers
Hamilton was one of the few bright spots at Rutgers last season … until a knee injury shelved him in Week 4.
The Scarlet Knights were in no position to lose him, their Defensive MVP and team captain in 2014. However, now the senior is on his way back, and set to serve as one of the physical and emotional leaders of Chris Ash’s first squad in Piscataway.
Hamilton’s knee problems actually began in the spring of 2015, so he’s had ample time to recapture his form from two years ago. In fact, he’s packed on more weight to handle the rigors of the interior, and he’s vowing to deliver his best season to date with the Scarlet Knights.
7. S Dante Barnett, Kansas State
When Barnett went down with a shoulder injury in the opener, the Wildcats lost arguably their most important all-around defender.
Barnett began the 2015 season as a two-year starter and a reigning All-Big 12 Second Team performer. However, he ended it with just five tackles. Barnett has the size and the instincts to flourish on Sundays, but for one final year he’s going to be the headliner of the Kansas State secondary.
While it took longer than expected for Barnett to get back to full strength, he operated without limitations during the spring. He could have turned pro early at the end of last season, but he’s determined instead to play one more season in Manhattan before moving on to the NFL.
6. QB Taysom Hill, BYU
Hill is back in Provo, but what exactly that means in 2016 remains to be seen.
The fifth-year senior ended speculation earlier in the year when he announced he’d be finishing his career as a Cougar. However, Tanner Mangum also returns after filling in admirably a season ago. And then there’s the issue of Hill’s durability, which has been a perennial problem. He’s Heisman-esque at full strength, but has gone wire-to-wire in just one of his four seasons.
Hill’s recovery from a Lisfranc injury has been long and painful. He was limited in April and did not participate in the spring game, giving way to Mangum. With a tough decision ahead, new head coach Kalani Sitake has listed his quarterbacks as co-starters.
5. QB Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
South Bend will be the scene of one of the best offseason quarterback battles, thanks to an unfortunate ankle injury that felled Zaire in Week 2.
After Zaire beat out Everett Golson for the starting gig, he was supposed to become a star in Brian Kelly’s attack. And he very well might have before getting rolled on by the Virginia defense. The dual-threat is on his way back, but the emergence of DeShone Kizer means he’ll have to fend off competition for a second year in a row.
While Zaire wore a red jersey in the spring, there were no indications he was feeling the effects of last fall’s ankle injury. He moved well outside of the pocket, showcasing his trademark athleticism. Still, Kelly will wait until fall camp before naming his 2016 starter.
4. WR Mike Williams, Clemson
Deshaun Watson threw 35 touchdown passes a year ago, almost winning the Heisman Trophy. And he did it without arguably his most polished wide receiver.
Williams suffered a scary Week 1 neck injury after being shoved into the goalpost. A handful of Tigers collaboratively picked up the slack, but Williams’ length and playmaking ability were still missed. Almost two years after amassing 1,030 receiving yards, he’s been cleared for takeoff.
Williams used March and April to show that he’s all the way back from last year’s harrowing injury. And now that he’s healthy again, it’s as if Clemson has added a dominating future first-round draft choice to an already potent attack.
3. RB James Conner, Pittsburgh
This past year was one Conner will not soon forget.
Conner, who rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014, tore his MCL in the 2015 opener. But that setback was nothing compared to the Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis he received in December. To his credit, and consistent with his personality, Conner was back at practice in February. And he’s still hoping to rejoin his teammates by the start of the 2016 campaign.
Six months after his diagnosis, Conner declared on May 23 that he was cancer-free. He’s become an inspiration, for the Panthers and beyond, even appearing on Ellen in April. Conner is listed atop the Pitt depth chart, and is set to continue his miraculous journey in pads this summer.
2. QB Seth Russell, Baylor
By the time Iowa State visited Waco on Oct. 24, Russell had jockeyed into Heisman contention. However, that game with the Cyclones would be the quarterback’s last of 2015.
Russell injured his cervical vertebra, curtailing a banner season that had him on target to account for more than 60 touchdowns. Although the senior was frighteningly close to not walking again, his surgery was a success and he should be whole again after rebuilding the muscles in his neck.
In an offseason riddled with controversy and chaos, Baylor fans can take comfort that Russell received a clean bill of health in early June. Now that he’s been cleared, he’ll face little to no restrictions.
1. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
Chubb played in five full games in 2015, rushing for at least 120 yards in all of them. In Week 6 against Tennessee, though, he was lost to a season-ending left knee injury.
Being shelved was tough on Chubb, who’s transferred all of his focus and pent-up energy on returning to the field as quickly as possible. Despite the significance of the injury, which included extensive ligament and cartilage damage, Chubb hopes to be available for the Sept. 3 opener with Carolina.
While Chubb is ahead of schedule in his rehab, the team has been understandably cautious with him. He’ll resume contact this summer, though the presence of Sony Michel means Chubb needn’t be rushed back, including for the opener against North Carolina.