College football: 7 comeback players to root for in 2017
With football season quickly approaching, we've covered breakout candidates, transfers who could make big impacts and under-the-radar Heisman candidates. Now we're identifying another group — comeback players who are returning to the field after suffering season-ending injuries last year.
These student-athletes successfully underwent surgery, have rehabilitated and can make an impact this season if they remain healthy:
S Derwin James, Florida State
James appeared in just two games last season for the Seminoles after suffering a season-ending lateral meniscus tear in his left knee against Charleston Southern on Sept. 10. When healthy, the 6-3, 211-pound Florida native is one of the best defensive backs in college football. James was named to the All-ACC third team as a true freshman after recording 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2015. After receiving a medical redshirt due to his injury last season, James enters 2017 as a preseason All-ACC selection and a member of five different college football award watch lists, including the Maxwell Award that's given to the college player of the year.
DB/KR Evan Berry, Tennessee
Berry, the younger brother of NFL Pro Bowl safety and former Volunteer Eric Berry, is one of the most electric kick returners in college football. He ranks first all-time in school history in career kickoff return average at a 34.2-yard clip. Berry, a senior who plays safety for Tennessee, has four kickoff return touchdowns in his career, including three in 2015, when he averaged nearly 40 yards per kick return. He suffered a season-ending knee injury last fall but has recovered to be selected as a preseason First Team All-SEC selection by multiple publications.
LB Joe Dineen Jr., Kansas
Dineen bounced around various positions as a freshman before blossoming into one of Kansas' leading tacklers as a sophomore. After recording 86 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2015, Dineen became a full-time starter at linebacker last fall. However, he suffered a hamstring injury against Memphis during the the first series of the game, sidelining one of the best defenders in the Big 12 for the remainder of the season. Dineen's last full game – 10 tackles and two tackles for loss against Ohio last fall – shows the linebacker's level of production when healthy.
OL Antonio Riles, Florida
Riles began his career on the defensive line before moving to the offensive side of the ball, where he was given the Most Valuable Offensive Lineman Scout Team Award. In 2015, he was part of a five-player group that became the first Florida offensive line to start the first six games of a season since 2008. However, his development as a lineman was cut short by a season-ending injury suffered during fall camp last year that prevented him from seeing the field. Now the 6-4, 328-pound Riles is poised to make a healthy return for the Gators.
OL Andrew Nelson, Penn State
If running back Saquon Barkley has the kind of season that many college football fans and prognosticators think he's capable of having, Nelson will be a big reason why. Literally. The 6-6, 305-pound lineman has experience at both tackle positions and was a freshman All-American in 2014, his last healthy season. Nelson missed four games due to injury in 2015 and was sidelined for the Nittany Lions' final eight games last fall. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and accounted for 22 total touchdowns last year, and a healthy Nelson blocking for him would go a long way in 2017.
CB Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame
Due to two separate injuries, Crawford has only played one full game in his Notre Dame career, but he impressed on a national stage. In the Fighting Irish's season-opener against the Texas Longhorns last fall, Crawford made five total tackles, intercepted a pass, and he tied the game late in the fourth quarter by returning a blocked PAT 98 yards for a two-point conversion, ultimately forcing overtime. He suffered a torn ACL in August of his freshman year, then a ruptured Achilles in Notre Dame's second game last fall. Here's to hoping we get to see Crawford back on the field this year making more highlight plays like he did against Texas.
QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
Last October, Rosen suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Arizona State in a game in which he threw for a career-high 400 yards. UCLA lost that game and six of its final seven as its quarterback was sidelined. Rosen, who in 2015 became the first true freshman Bruin quarterback to start a season-opener, is sixth all-time in UCLA history in passing yards, total offense and completions, despite playing just a season and a half. Now healthy and entering his third season in the program, Rosen is expected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country.