Dienhart: Top Big Ten players back from injury

Dienhart: Top Big Ten players back from injury

Injuries are a part of football. And sometimes, they can ruin a team’s season. Last season saw several key Big Ten players miss significant time due to injury. Here is a look at the top player from each squad who missed a lot of time after suffering an injury in 2016 and hopes for better times in 2017.

Here is a look at the top player from each squad who missed a lot of time after suffering an injury in 2016 and hopes for better times in 2017.

Illinois: WR Mikey Dudek, Jr. No one in the Big Ten has had more bad luck than Dudek. Check this out: The last time he caught a pass, Tim Beckman was the Illini coach. Since then, Illinois is on its second coach. Dudek had a smashing debut in 2014, making 76 receptions for 1,038 yards with six TDs. But the 5-11, 186-pound junior hasn’t played since, as he subsequently tore ACLs in 2015 and 2016. Dudek was cleared in the spring but saw no contact. Why risk it? The offense needs his playmaking ability.

Indiana: WR Simmie Cobbs, Jr. His season was over before it really got started in 2016. Cobbs was suspended for the opener, then suffered a season-ending ankle injury after just one play in the second game of the season, vs. Ball State. In 2015, Cobbs had 60 grabs for 1,035 yards and four TDs. The junior could be one of the Big Ten’s best this fall.

Iowa: WR Matt VandeBerg, Sr. No doubt, the Hawkeye attack could have used his field-stretching ability last season. VandeBerg had 19 catches for 284 yards and three TDs in four games in 2016 before a right foot injury suffered in practice ended his season; the year before, he had 65 grabs for 703 yards. The senior needs to be a difference-maker this fall.

Maryland: WR Taivon Jacobs. Sr. The senior has endured an injury-marred career in College Park, having three knee injuries. They forced him to miss 2013 and 2016. And he missed all but one game in 2014. In 2015, he had 21 catches for 264 yards and two scores. But he still has ample speed and needs to provide some explosion.

Michigan: N/A. Because OT Grant Newsome won’t be ready until 2018 and RB Drake Johnson wasn’t granted a sixth season, there isn’t a clear pick in Ann Arbor. That said, it will be great to see Newsome return from last season’s scary right knee injury, whenever it happens. He has the 2018 opener, at Notre Dame, on his mind.

Michigan State: OT Dennis Finley. He was hurt in 2015, missing the final nine games with a broken right leg suffered vs. Purdue. But we will go ahead and include him on this list, as he endured some struggles last year coming back from the injury. Finley needs to regain his 2015 form and help fortify a line that has a lot to prove in East Lansing for a program coming off a 3-9 season.

Minnesota: TE Brandon Lingen, Sr. The senior was lost after just three games in 2016 after suffering a left foot injury vs. Purdue. Before that, he suffered a broken clavicle in a forgettable season that saw him miss 10 games and make only three catches for 28 yards. This after Lingen had a breakout in 2015 with 33 receptions for 428 yards and three touchdowns to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

Nebraska: G Jerald Foster, Jr. Foster missed the first nine games of the 2016 season with a MCL injury but showed his potential when he returned for the final four games. The junior will be counted on to be one of the leaders of the Nebraska line in 2017, coming into the season as a frontrunner to start at left guard.

Northwestern: CB Keith Watkins, Jr. He was projected to start in 2016, but Watkins’ season never got going as he suffered a knee injury in camp that ended his year. The junior’s return will give NU a strong corps of cornerbacks that also includes Montre Hartage and Trae Williams.

Ohio State: LB Dante Booker, Sr. A knee injury ruined his 2016 after he opened as a starter. Booker incurred the injury in the opener after only 12 plays, ending his season before it got going. He is slated to start this fall after playing in 23 career games with 31 tackles.

Penn State: OT Andrew Nelson, Sr. His return will be welcomed for a unit that should be a strength for the first time in years. Nelson went down with a right leg injury vs. Maryland in October and missed the final eight games of the season. The senior tackle will help anchor a front that lost just one starter (Brian Gaia).

Purdue: RB D.J. Knox, Jr. The diminutive Knox (5-7) plays with power and explosion. So it was a big blow when he suffered a knee injury in spring drills in 2016 that scrubbed his season. In 2015, Knox ran for 409 yards and two scores and caught 26 passes. The junior will be part of what should be a strong collection of Boilermaker backs. In fact, Knox may be the best of them all.

Rutgers: WR Janarion Grant, Sr. The Scarlet Knights missed his playmaking skills, as Grant was lost for the season after suffering an ankle injury in the fourth game of the season. Grant had 20 receptions for 210 yards last season. He doubles as a deadly return man, running back a punt and a kickoff for TDs last season. Grant has run back eight kicks for scores in his career.

Wisconsin: LB Chris Orr, So. Unbelievably, the inside linebacker suffered a season-ending right knee injury on the first series of last season, vs. LSU. The year before, Orr excelled as a true freshman, starting in six games and finishing sixth on the team in tackles. UW also will have Jack Cichy back after he was limited to seven games in 2016 after hurting a pectoral muscle at Iowa in October.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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