Alabama's Kenyan Drake, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Auburn's Carl Lawson lead the list of 10 players ready make major comebacks from injuries in 2015.
While spring practices mark a fresh start for every player, that new beginning means a little more to some, particularly those whose falls ended early due to injury. After months of using crutches, slings and walking boots, these players finally get a chance to put their injuries behind them and prove they can compete at a high level. For some who are rehabbing, the return to the field won’t happen until the summer, but at least they can focus on preparing for Week 1.
Here are 10 players, listed alphabetically, ready to shake off the premature ends to their 2014 seasons and step into major roles this fall.
Bralon Addison, WR, Oregon
Oregon finished fourth nationally in scoring offense (45.4 points per game) last season, making it easy to forget that the Ducks were without a very explosive playmaker. Addison, the program's second-leading receiver in 2013, missed the run to the College Football Playoff title game after tearing his ACL last spring. As he shakes off the rust, he should add another threat to an attack capable of turning any play into a touchdown. Addison made 61 catches for 890 yards with seven scores in ’13 and is an easy target for short and mid-range passes, as defenders must respect his speed. For a reminder of what he can do, watch the below clip.
Kenny Bigelow, DT, USC
The former five-star prospect is two seasons into his USC career and has yet to see the field. After redshirting his first year on campus, Bigelow tore his ACL in June and missed all of last season. He will finally make his debut this fall and could have an immediate impact. Bigelow was the jewel of the Trojans’ 2013 recruiting class, as Rivals.com rated him higher than defensive line standouts Joey Bosa and A’Shawn Robinson. He remains limited this spring while he continues to recover, but with star teammate Leonard Williams bound for the NFL, USC will look to the rising sophomore to live up to his recruiting hype.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
After gruesomely breaking his leg at Ole Miss on Oct. 4, Drake is remarkably back on the field for the Crimson Tide and drawing positive reviews. He says he isn't yet 100% healthy, but recently ran a 4.4 40-yard dash, indicating he still has the speed that helped him rack up 271 total yards with six touchdowns through four games last year. Drake is even garnering comparisons to Reggie Bush. However, his future might actually be brighter at wide receiver, where he has been taking some reps in spring practice. With top Tide targets Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones gone, and with Cam Sims likely out for the year with an ACL injury, Drake could emerge as a threat in coordinator Lane Kiffin's passing game.
Derrick Green, RB, Michigan
Green must win a position battle to keep his starting spot, but could be the most lethal weapon in Michigan’s rebuilding offense if he does. The tailback rushed for 471 yards through six games in 2014 before breaking his clavicle at Rutgers on Oct. 4. Green bulked up in the off-season, adding 14 pounds to his frame, although the Wolverines’ competition for carries appears to be completely open. Teammate Ty Isaac, who is eligible this season after transferring from USC in June, was also a five-star recruit in the class of '13.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
With Auburn inheriting new coordinator Will Muschamp’s defense, Lawson seems poised to reprise Dante Fowler Jr.’s role. Fowler, the former Florida star who is now preparing for the NFL draft, recorded 15 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, last year in the Buck position, a hybrid linebacker-defensive end. Lawson was a freshman All-America in 2013 before a torn ACL cost him all of the ’14 campaign. A spring practice participant, he claims to be faster, and should provide a welcome boost to the Tigers’ pass rush. The defense struggled mightily without Lawson last fall, registering 21 sacks, 12th in the SEC.
Luther Maddy, DT, Virginia Tech
It was shocking when Maddy was named an All-ACC honorable mention by the coaches last season. After all, he played in just four games, including one in conference, before undergoing two surgeries to fix a torn meniscus. Maddy did enjoy a stellar 2013 in which he recorded 55 tackles, with 13.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks. The senior’s injury allows Virginia Tech to return all four starting defensive linemen this year and could help give the Hokies the premier defense in the ACC. They’ll have to wait until summer to get him back in practice, though.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
The tremendous success of J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones makes it easy to forget the initial reaction to Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury was vaguely apocalyptic. How could the Buckeyes hope to contend for a Big Ten championship without the league's two-time offensive player of the year? Obviously, the situation has changed immensely since Miller went down, and he may be the first player to get Wally Pipped from starter to third-stringer. But if he reclaims the starting job—he won’t be able to throw fully until June—Miller’s track record suggests he can succeed. In 2012 and ’13 he picked up 6,472 total yards with 64 touchdowns.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Ankle and knee injuries limited Peppers to just three games last season, depriving the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2014 from making an instant impact. Although Peppers’s setbacks proved another blow in a woeful Michigan season, they may have been good for the program, as Peppers now has four full years of eligibility for coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh’s staff moved Peppers to safety because it wanted to make sure teams couldn’t avoid him by simply not throwing at him. Now healthy, Peppers has drawn rave reviews for his enthusiasm and got an A-plus grade from Harbaugh after Michigan’s spring game last Saturday.
Dwayne Thomas, CB, LSU
Thomas did a little bit of everything for LSU last season, playing as the nickelback in the Mustang package, a role once played by Tyrann Mathieu. Mixing blitzes with coverage, he amassed 26 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, one pass breakup, one interception and one fumble recovery before a torn ACL against New Mexico State ended his campaign. Thomas took the field less than six months after his injury and is ready to resume his do-it-all duty. With defensive coordinator John Chavis off to Texas A&M, LSU can use all the experience it can get.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
The reasons Watson only saw significant playing time in five games last season are numerous, none of which diminishes the optimism for his future. Watson began the year backing up Cole Stoudt, but replaced him as the starter during the Tigers’ overtime loss to Florida State—only to break his hand three games later against Louisville. He returned at Georgia Tech on Nov. 15, but sprained his knee and later tore his ACL in practice. Despite the injury-plagued season, Watson enters 2015 as potentially the best quarterback in the ACC. That will happen when a freshman completes 68% of his passes for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns.