After the Fall: Who's Coming Back From Injuries?

Injuries can have a cruel way of twisting the fate of team. Lose a key player and a team’s season can take an entirely different direction. Just ask Purdue, which has had more than its share of key players injured in recent seasons, or Penn State, which saw several key players go down in 2011.

As the summer progresses and we get closer to the fall, here’s my look at the top players who are battling back from injuries that cost them some or all of last season. It includes looks at Purdue’s Ralph Bolden and Rob Henry, Wisconsin’s David Gilbert, Northwestern’s Tony Jones, Penn State’s Pett Massaro and Michael Mauti, Minnesota’s Troy Stoudermire, Michigan State’s Blake Treadwell, and Ohio State’s Nathan Williams.

Ralph Bolden, RB, Purdue. In some ways, Bolden has been the poster child for the injury woes that have plagued Danny Hope’s program the past three seasons. Bolden first injured his right knee in his second-to-last high school game but still played as a freshman at Purdue in 2008. But the right knee hasn’t held up. Coming off a 2009 season that saw him rank third in the Big Ten in rushing (935), Bolden suffered a non-contact right knee injury in spring drills. He subsequently underwent surgery and missed 2010. Bolden returned last year and was productive (674 yards rushing) before incurring another right knee injury in the season finale at Indiana that required surgery. Now, the availability of the 5-9, 190-pound senior for this fall is in question. If Bolden can’t play, he could apply for a sixth season of eligibility. Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt must carry the load for now.

David Gilbert, DE, Wisconsin. The Badgers need his pass-rushing skills off the edge. Gilbert played the first four games of 2011 before suffering a season-ending foot injury. The 6-4, 250-pound junior has a quick first step, using speed and underrated strength to confound pass rushers. Gilbert was enjoying an all-league-type effort prior to his injury last season. He needs to pick up where he left off to give the Badgers the pass rush they have missed since J.J. Watt departed after 2010. No doubt, Gilbert’s efforts will be helped if fellow end Brendan Kelly can break out and develop into a force on the other end.

Rob Henry, QB, Purdue. This time last year, Henry was the Boilermakers’ No. 1 quarterback. He was coming off a 2010 season in which he played in 11 games and made seven starts en route to becoming the first signal-caller in school annals to lead the team in rushing and passing yards. But in camp last August, Henry incurred a non-contact right knee injury and was lost for the year, paving the way for Caleb TerBush to assume command. Now, Henry finds himself behind not only TerBush, but also Robert Marve, who is back for a sixth season after dealing with his own knee woes. What’s it mean for the 6-2, 200-pound junior? He may have to settle for a role as a utility player.

Tony Jones, WR, Northwestern. He flashed promise as a true freshman in 2010, when he made 11 catches for 157 yards. But Jones missed last season after suffering a knee injury in the week leading up to the season-opener at Boston College. The 6-0, 185-pound sophomore is a speedy wideout who can stretch the field, injecting much-needed big-play ability into a Wildcat attack that looks to have a deep and talented collection of receivers.

Pete Massaro, DE, Penn State. He never even made it to 2011, injuring his left knee in spring drills. Massaro also missed the 2009 campaign after injuring his right knee in spring practice prior to that season. Maybe Massaro, a fifth-year senior, should just skip spring practices. The last time we saw the 6-4, 263-pound Massaro, in 2010, he notched 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He will be counted on to bring the heat for a line that must replace three starters.

Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State. Injuries have haunted Mauti. He enjoyed a strong debut as a true freshman in 2008 before tearing the ACL in his right knee in camp prior to the 2009 season. Mauti redshirted and returned with a vengeance in 2010, notching 67 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. But Mauti then tore the ACL in his left knee in the fourth game last year and was lost for the season. Two knee injuries in three years. The 6-2, 239-pound Mauti, who was held out of contact in the spring, is a fiery competitor and tireless worker with underrated athletic ability who vows he’s ready for a big senior season.

Troy Stoudermire, CB/KR, Minnesota. He started the first four games of last season before missing the last eight with a broken forearm suffered vs. Miami (Ohio). The 5-10, 200-pound fifth-year senior played the next week but couldn’t finish the game, shutting down for the season. A struggling Gopher secondary is blessed to have back Stoudermire—who in January was granted a medical hardship waiver– from a unit that lost Kim Royston, who led the squad in tackles in 2011. Stoudermire also is a top return man, ranking as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards (3,102).

Blake Treadwell, C, Michigan State. The local kid was an anchor inside before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the third game of the year vs. Notre Dame. The 6-3, 299-pound junior was a defensive lineman his first two seasons on campus before flipping sides of the ball in 2011. Travis Jackson stepped in and shined at center in Treadwell’s absence, but he has emerged to take over the left guard slot formerly held by Joel Foreman for what may be the top line in the Big Ten.

Nathan Williams, DE, Ohio State. There is a lot to like about the 2012 Buckeye defense. Best of all may be the return of the 6-3, 249-pound Williams to a line that also will include John Simon and Johnathan Hankins. Williams injured his left knee in the season opener against Akron and didn’t play again. At one point, he thought he was going to return in 2011, but his knee didn’t respond to arthroscopic surgery and Williams had to undergo another procedure. The fifth-year senior didn’t take part in spring drills but is ready for 2012. Williams is a relentless pass rusher who has 20.5 career tackles for loss. He may be one of the league’s top pass rushers this fall.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.

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