NCAA Football

Ten college football stars looking to roar back after injuries

Florida State safety Derwin James is one of the top college football stars returning from injury in 2017
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

There are some outstanding college football stars returning from injuries suffered last year who’re looking to rebound in a big way.

Some are already among the best players at any position in the nation, while others still have plenty left to prove.

One is a quarterback who lost half the year with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. Another is a bully in the middle who’s expected to anchor one of the best defenses in the country. We’ll be looking at a dynamic running back with huge shoes to fill as well, not to mention a safety who may be the best pound-for-pound player in college football.

These are the top-10 college football stars looking to make big statements after missing most or all last season with injuries.

Ken Webster, cornerback, Ole Miss

Ken Webster of Ole Miss

Heading into the 2016 season, Ole Miss had high hopes for Webster, who was expected to anchor the secondary. He had been a big part of what the Rebels had done in 2015, racking up 41 tackles, 11 defended passes and one interception. He was considered by some to be a top challenger for All-SEC honors last year.

Then Webster suffered a brutal knee injury in the first quarter of the first game against Florida State. Defending Kermit Whitfield on a deep pass, he leaped up and came down awkwardly, his knee bending the wrong way, and had to be carted off the field. That was all she wrote for Webster in 2016.

Needless to say, he’s amped to make his return in 2016.

“It might bring tears,” Webster said in an interview with Greg McElroy on SEC Network. “A whole year out from football… it’s going to bring tears to me to know that I’m back out there again, in front of those fans, with my teammates, doing what I do best: having fun.”

Having Webster back in action should be a huge boon to the Rebels defensively. He’s not only a skilled player but is now a team leader who’ll provide passion and energy in this role.

Rodney Anderson, running back, Oklahoma

The Sooners have a huge void at the running back position heading into 2017. Both Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon — guys who totaled 2,334 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground — are on NFL rosters.

This leaves the door wide open for Anderson to make a huge impact, provided he can stay healthy. Originally a four-star recruit out of Katy, Texas, Anderson missed almost all of his first two years at Oklahoma due to injuries. However, he certainly has the size, speed and power to be the lead back for Baker Mayfield’s high-powered offense.

“Every quality you’d put down for a great running back or just a great football player, he checks a lot of the boxes,” said Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, via ESPN’s Jake Trotter.

A huge back (6-foot-2, 223-pounds), is just the battering ram the Sooners need to balance an offense that needs to find production from new players at pretty much all the skill positions. The only returning star besides Mayfield is tight end/receiver Mark Andrews, another big-time playmaker.

Skai Moore, linebacker, South Carolina

The Gamecocks cannot wait for Moore to get back into the swing of things this upcoming season.

Since stepping onto campus as a true freshman in 2013, he’s been a do-it-all stud. Leading South Carolina in tackles from 2013-15, he also is an absolute ball hawk who tallied 11 interceptions, just three off the school record.

Remember, this is a linebacker we’re talking about here, folks. A 6-foot-2, 220-pound nightmare of raw speed, intensity and intelligence who also possesses elite instincts.

Unfortunately Moore missed last season with a neck injury. But if this spring was any indication, that won’t have any impact going forward. Gamecocks teammate Dante Sawyer said Moore “feels like the old 10,” per David Caraviello of the Post and Courier.

After taking a redshirt year, the senior returns with a vengeance this year, and opposing offenses better know where No. 10 is at all times.

Toa Lobendahn, offensive guard, USC

Lobendahn made an immediate impact for the Trojans as a freshman in 2014, and it was thought he’d be a mainstay on the offensive line. An injury during the second half of 2015, however, bled into last year, and he barely played due to knee injuries.

Though he didn’t practice during the spring as he continued to rehab his ACL injury, the Polynesian behemoth  is expected to be a key lineman for USC in 2017.

The best thing about Lobendahn is that he can play almost anywhere on the line. This is a huge deal for USC in 2017 as the program attempts to adequately replace three starters from last year.

USC has championship aspirations. Sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold has a lot of hype on his shoulders as well. Lobendahn is an important factor for both of those issues. If he can stay healthy, then the Trojans will have a much better chance of achieving greatness on offense.

Christian LaCouture, defensive tackle, LSU

Aside from defensive end Arden Key, who we expect to be one of the biggest impact players in the nation, the most important lineman for LSU this year is LaCouture.

An impact player for three years before tearing his ACL during preseason camp last fall, LaCouture is a people mover inside for the Tigers. He tallied 85 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks from 2013-15.

If the Tigers have any hope of featuring an elite front seven, then LaCouture needs to get back to where he was at (or better) before his injury.

This is a guy who was pegged by many to be a potential Day 1 or Day 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft heading into last season. With a strong campaign this year, he’ll have that same opportunity in 2018.

Mike Dudek, wide receiver, Illinois

A pass-catching machine as a true freshman for the Fighting Illini in 2014, Dudek has suffered ACL injuries to his right knee two years running. Thankfully, as early as last December, the receiver dubbed himself 100-percent healthy.

“If we were playing a game tomorrow, I would play,” Dudek said in early December, via Bob Asmussen of The News-Gazette. “I’m just getting ready for next year. We’re going to have a good year.”

With an entire offseason to get ready for the 2017 season, Dudek will be the focal point of the Illinois offense.

Expectations are high. He brought in 76 receptions for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. We’d expect those numbers to balloon significantly now that he’s going to be the main target of whoever wins the battle at quarterback.

Shaun Crawford, cornerback, Notre Dame

One of the hottest prospects in the state of Ohio in 2015, Crawford headed to South Bend with some legitimate hype. A track star at St. Edward High School in Ohio in addition to becoming a four-star cornerback, he showed off his speed and explosion participating in the long jump, 4×100 and 4×400 relays and 60, 100 and 200 meters.

Crawford was doing some good things right away for Brian Kelly’s defense and was expected to be an impact contributor as a true freshman. A knee injury in the fall right before the season began derailed his 2015 campaign.

He then he was hit again at the start of last year with an Achilles tear, but not before he tallied six tackles, one interception and a return for two points on a blocked extra point against Texas.

Bad luck has been the name of the game so far.

Crawford is healthy now heading into 2017, however, and once again his immense talent is expected to be heavily featured for the Fighting Irish.

Matt VandeBerg, wide receiver, Iowa

Matt VandeBerg Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes are happy to have VandeBerg back in the fold for the upcoming season. After missing most of the 2016 season with a broken foot, the receiver was granted a medical waiver this past winter that has allowed him to return for a fifth season in Iowa City.

Though VandeBerg did re-injury his foot this spring, he’s expected to be a big part of what the Hawkeyes do offensively this upcoming season. He led the team in receptions in 2015, hauling in 65 receptions for 703 yards and four touchdowns. Before his foot injury last year, he was on a hot streak, catching 19 passes for 284 yards and three scores in four games.

We should expect Iowa’s passing attack to rely on VandeBerg all the more this year now that Jermenic Smith is off the team. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say VandeBerg is the most valuable player on Iowa’s offense. Period.

Staying healthy is key. Suffering two foot injuries in half a year is disconcerting, to say the least. But if VandeBerg doesn’t rush back and can stay on the field this year, 100-plus catches is on the horizon.

Derwin James, safety, Florida State

We highlighted James as one of the nation’s best defenders heading into the upcoming season. He’s a human highlight reel. He’s also one of the scariest sights an ACC quarterback, running back or receiver could possibly see.

Expectations couldn’t have been higher for James heading into last season. But an early-season knee injury caused the dynamic safety to miss all but two games last year.

What he’s accomplished early in his career is astonishing, though. In 14 career games, James has racked up incredible stats: 102 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble returns.

Anything less than an All-American campaign would have to be deemed a disappointment. Simpy put, James is the best safety in the nation. And it’s not all that close.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA

As a true freshman in 2015, Rosen wowed. He had his fair share of ups and downs, but overall he was darn impressive, throwing 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading the Bruins to a 8-5 record.

A brutal start against the Myles Garrett-led Texas A&M defense to open the 2016 season foreshadowed what was a very frustrating season for Rosen. He ended up suffering nerve damage to his throwing shoulder in October that kept him out for the rest of the year.

Thankfully for Rosen and the Bruins, he’s fully healthy and back practicing, ready to lead the offense once again without limitations. He looked sharp during the team’s spring game, completing 14-of-18 passes for 83 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

There is a lot on the line for Rosen, who could very well be one of the top — if not the top — quarterbacks taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. In addition to his health scare, there are off-field issues some teams are reportedly concerned about (more on that here).

Simply put Rosen needs to show some maturity overall this year — on and off the field — as the face of UCLA football.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.