Top 10 college football comeback players for 2017

Dr. Saturday
All aboard the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/251748/" data-ylk="slk:Derwin James">Derwin James</a> hype train.&nbsp;(Getty Images)
All aboard the Derwin James hype train. (Getty Images)

Injuries are a part of football, but it doesn’t make it any less terrible when one of the country’s most exciting players misses a bunch of games. Many key players were injured last year that are primed to make a comeback in 2017. With the season less than a month away we ranked the 10 best players coming back from serious injury based on impact they’ll have on their team.

10. Shaun Crawford, CB, Notre Dame

The beginning of Shaun Crawford’s college career has been rough. The Notre Dame cornerback was expected to see quite a bit of action at nickelback as a true freshman in 2015, but he suffered a torn ACL just before the season began. Crawford returned in 2016 and opened the year as a starter and looked primed to be one of the Irish’s better defensive players.

In Week 1 against Texas he registered six tackles, an interception and returned a blocked extra point for two points, but Crawford’s season ended prematurely once again in Week 2 when he tore his Achilles against Nevada. Entering 2017, Crawford is reportedly healthy once again and is ready to show why he was such a highly regarded recruit in the 2015 class. His presence should be a boon for the Notre Dame defense if he can stay on the field.

9. Derek McCartney, DE/OLB, Colorado

Colorado finally had its big breakthrough in 2016, but it did it without one of its top defensive players. In Week 2 against Michigan, Derek McCartney returned a fumble for a touchdown to increase the Buffs’ early lead. Later in the first half, however, McCartney tore his ACL, forcing him to watch the Buffs’ march to the Pac-12 South title from the sidelines.

Colorado’s Derek McCartney has been named a captain ahead of the 2017 season. (AP)
Colorado’s Derek McCartney has been named a captain ahead of the 2017 season. (AP)

McCartney, the grandson of legendary CU coach Bill McCartney, combined for 104 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2014 and 2015, so he has a history of production for the Buffs. Now healthy after sitting out spring practice and recently named a team captain, McCartney should make some noise in 2017.

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8. Tyrell Crosby, OL, Oregon

Oregon had a really young offense last year that got younger when veteran tackle Tyrell Crosby went down with a foot injury. Including the two starts he made in 2016, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Crosby has started 23 career games for the Ducks. And he’s done so at both tackle spots, so his versatility is key as new coach Willie Taggart solidifies a starting unit in front of Justin Herbert entering 2017.

7. Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers

We have Grant listed as a wide receiver here, but he does way more than that for Rutgers. On a team devoid of much playmaking talent, the loss of Grant to an ankle injury was an absolute killer for the Scarlet Knights. The play where the injury occurred was a perfect example of Grant’s explosiveness.

Grant was injured during Rutgers’ fourth game of the year. At that point, he already had 20 catches, three rushing touchdowns on 8.6 yards per carry and two return touchdowns — one kickoff and one punt. In all, Grant has eight career return touchdowns — five on kickoffs and three on punts. Simply put, Grant is one of the most dangerous players in the Big Ten with the ball in his hands.

6. Mike Dudek, WR, Illinois

Dudek was one of the Big Ten’s top freshmen — at any position — in 2014 for Illinois, the only FBS program to offer him a scholarship. Lining up all over the field for the Illini, the speedy Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. His routes were precise, his hands were great, and he was tough to bring down despite his diminutive stature. Dudek was looking to build on those numbers entering 2015, but he tore his ACL during spring practice. He worked his way back to health the following spring, only to go down with the same injury in the same knee. Brutal.

Now, entering 2017, Illini head coach Lovie Smith says Dudek is “100 percent” healthy. Illinois might not win many games, but teams are always going to have to worry about Dudek torching them in the passing game.

5. Matt VandeBerg, WR, Iowa

Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg had 65 catches in 2015. (Getty Images)
Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg had 65 catches in 2015. (Getty Images)

Beyond Matt VandeBerg, Iowa’s depth at receiver is almost non-existent. It showed in 2016 after he went down with a broken foot just four games into the season. When healthy in 2015, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound VandeBerg nearly doubled Iowa’s second-leading receiver by catching 65 balls for 703 yards and four scores. You can see by the yardage output was low for the number of receptions. The Hawkeyes won’t all of a sudden be trotting out five-wide sets, but the passing game is expected to open up a bit in 2017. VandeBerg’s presence will play a big part in that, especially with the team working in a new starting QB.

4. Kylie Fitts, DL, Utah

Fitts made an immediate impact at Utah after transferring to the Utes from UCLA. In 2015, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end totaled 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a team-leading seven sacks. He also led the Pac-12 by forcing four fumbles and had a knack for tipping balls at the line, registering 10 pass breakups. Fitts already had three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks when he went down with a foot injury in Week 2 of 2016. If Fitts stays healthy in 2017, he could be one of the best all around defensive linemen in the Pac-12.

3. Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina

After earning All-SEC honors in 2015, Skai Moore missed all of 2016 because of a herniated disc in his neck. Moore’s absence was a big void in Will Muschamp’s first defense with the Gamecocks, which ended up finishing in the middle of the pack in the SEC. In 2015, he led the team with 111 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions. He also led South Carolina in tackles in 2013 and 2014, too. His return will provide a huge presence as a fifth-year senior in 2017, especially when defending the run.

Muschamp is excited to see him out on the field.

“[Moore] brings an element of toughness, leadership, speed, athleticism. Very instinctive at the position. Led South Carolina in tackles for three years before I got there. He’s a playmaker and a guy we’re really excited about,” Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. “Been through an awful lot this year as far as the adversity he’s been through. Coaching change. Thought about coming out [to the NFL] a couple times. I think he made two very mature decisions to come back. Really excited to see him play this fall.

2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Rosen, widely considered one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country and a potential top NFL draft pick, burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2015, throwing for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns. But things didn’t go as well in 2016. The Bruins struggled early and Rosen was knocked out of an early season game against Arizona State. He landed hard on his shoulder and was in obvious pain. The injury ended his season and he would have surgery to clean out what he said was a small tear.

Josh Rosen should bounce back strong for UCLA in 2017. (AP)
Josh Rosen should bounce back strong for UCLA in 2017. (AP)

Rosen returned in the spring and says he’s fully healthy. UCLA, after a disastrous 4-8 record in 2016, needs Rosen to rebound in a big way. UCLA’s offense was a mess last year, but Rosen’s presence makes an enormous difference. If he can stay healthy, the Bruins, now with new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, could be in for a bounce-back year. If not, Jim Mora may be looking for a new job while Rosen heads off to the NFL.

1. Derwin James, DB, Florida State

The Derwin James hype train has been chugging along all offseason, so why stop now? The hype is warranted. James is one of the most talented players in the country as he moves all over the field for Florida State’s defense. As the Seminoles vow to get back to the College Football Playoff, James should play a big part. His numbers in 2015 as a true freshman were ridiculous: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He returned to the starting unit in 2016 and was poised for another big year, only to tear his meniscus in Week 2. Jimbo Fisher was optimistic he’d make a return at some point last season, but it never came to fruition. Now fully healthy, James is ready to cause chaos for ACC offenses once again in 2017.

James said at ACC Media Days that missing most of the year helped him view the game from a different vantage point.

“Of course I wanted to be out there with my teammates and helping my team, but I learned a lot just from being on the sideline, just watching it, viewing it from a coaching standpoint. I learned to appreciate the game more. I definitely learned that,” James said. “And basically when the coach is getting on you it’s because of a reason. It’s because of something that you see, that they see. I didn’t get that at first coming in, but now I understand why the coaches are on me so hard.”

Look out.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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