Injuries are an unfortunate part of any college football season and usually take a toll on every FBS team by the end of the year. Several key players were hit by the injury bug in 2016, including a handful of big names from the Big Ten. Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy, Indiana receiver Simmie Cobbs, Michigan offensive lineman Grant Newsome and Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek are just a few of the top players returning from injury into Big Ten action this fall.
Additionally, Michigan State cornerback Vayante Copeland, Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr and Rutgers receiver Janarion Grant are just a few of the other key players slated to return to action in 2017.
25 Key Big Ten Players Returning From Injury in 2017
Dante Booker, LB, Ohio State
Booker opened the year as Ohio State’s starter at weakside linebacker, but his 2016 season was derailed due to a knee injury. After recording two tackles in the opener, Booker did not record a stat the rest of the season and was credited with just two game appearances by Ohio State. He should return as a key contributor for the linebacker unit in 2017.
Jack Cichy/Chris Orr, LB, Wisconsin
With T.J. Watt off to the NFL and Vince Biegel out of eligibility, Wisconsin needs a few reinforcements at linebacker. The good news for the Badgers? Two standouts are back from injury. Cichy recorded eight tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2015 but was limited to seven games due to injury in 2016. Orr was lost for the year in the opener against LSU and should build off a promising freshman campaign (46 tackles in 2015).
Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
Cobbs ranked as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers in 2015, catching 60 passes for 1,035 yards and three touchdowns. However, Cobbs wasn’t able to make an impact in 2016 after an ankle injury suffered in Week 2 against Ball State. His return is critical with Indiana losing two out of its top three receivers from 2016.
Vayante Copeland, CB, Michigan State
Copeland started in five of Michigan State’s first seven games and recorded 36 tackles and two passes. However, Copeland’s season was cut short by a foot injury in late October. He returns as a key cog in Michigan State’s secondary in 2017.
Chayce Crouch, QB, Illinois
The Fighting Illini offense was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injury in 2016. Crouch replaced Wes Lunt after an injury and completed 18 of 32 passes for 249 yards and one score and added 176 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in four appearances. However, Crouch suffered a season-ending injury in mid-October. He will compete with junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson and Jeff George Jr. for the starting job this spring.
Mike Dudek, WR, Illinois
Dudek emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers in 2014 but missed the last two seasons due to knee injuries. In 13 games as a true freshman in 2014, Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. His return to the lineup would provide a much-needed boost to the supporting cast for Illinois’ offense in 2017.
Dennis Finley, OL, Michigan State
Finley emerged as a starting lineman for Michigan State in 2015 but a serious leg injury sidelined him in early October. While the Detroit native couldn’t return to the starting lineup in 2016, he did manage to play in one game (Rutgers) in late November. If Finley is back at full strength, that’s a boost to a Michigan State offensive line that allowed 22 sacks in Big Ten games in 2016.
Rafael Gaglianone, K, Wisconsin
Gaglianone has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top kickers over the last three years and should push for all-conference honors in 2017. Despite connecting on seven of his first eight attempts, Gaglianone was sidelined after Week 3 due to an injury. He’s connected on 44 of 57 attempts in his career.
Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers
Rutgers averaged only 138.3 passing yards per game last season, but there’s hope for improvement in 2017 under new coordinator Jerry Kill. The offense also regains the services of its best receiver. Grant caught 20 passes for 210 yards through the first four games of 2016 but was sidelined the rest of the season due to injury.
J-Shun Harris II, WR, Indiana
Harris was an impact player for Indiana’s offense in 2014, catching 18 passes for 168 yards and two scores as a true freshman. However, Harris has missed the last two years due to knee injuries.
Justin Hilliard, LB, Ohio State
Hilliard ranked as one of the nation’s top linebacker recruits in the 2015 signing class and took a redshirt year in his first season on campus. The Cincinnati native worked his way into a backup role in 2016 and accumulated four stops through the first three games. After missing the rest of 2016 due to injury Hilliard should compete for snaps in a reserve role once again.
Taivon Jacobs, WR, Maryland
Jacobs ranked third on the team in 2015 with 21 catches for 264 yards and two touchdowns. The Maryland native missed 2016 due to injury but is slated to return to the lineup in 2017.
Drake Johnson, RB, Michigan
Michigan’s crowded backfield could have another name to watch if Johnson returns for 2017. After finishing second on the team with 271 yards and four scores in 2015, Johnson missed 2016 due to a hamstring injury.
Brandon Knight, OL, Indiana
Indiana’s offensive line has a few huge voids to fill this offseason. Not only is this unit losing standout guard Dan Feeney, but the coach for this group (Greg Frey) is headed to Michigan. Knight played in eight games (with six starts) but missed the rest of the year due to an injury.
D.J. Knox, RB, Purdue
The Boilermakers have a solid No. 1 option at running back (Markell Jones), but depth is an issue here. Knox rushed for 409 yards and two touchdowns in 10 appearances in 2015 and missed all of 2016 due to a knee injury suffered in the spring. Assuming he’s 100 percent healthy, Knox will return as a key reserve for new coach Jeff Brohm.
Brandon Lingen, TE, Minnesota
Lingen’s return is a huge boost for new coach P.J. Fleck. The Minnesota native was one of the Big Ten’s top tight ends in 2015, catching 33 passes for 428 yards and three scores. However, Lingen was lost after three games in 2016 due to an injury.
Brendan Mahon, OL, Penn State
Mahon entered 2016 with 20 career starts under his belt and opened the season as the starting left tackle. He eventually flipped to the right side before suffering a season-ending injury against Iowa in early November.
Andrew Nelson, OL, Penn State
The overall depth and talent for Penn State’s offensive line has improved significantly over the last two years. This unit should be a strength in 2017 with only one starter (Brian Gaia) departing. Nelson started all 13 games in 2014 but has missed time in each of the last two seasons due to injury. After suffering a season-ending injury against Maryland in early October, Nelson is slated to return in 2017 and likely claim a starting job at one of the tackle spots.
Grant Newsome, OL, Michigan
Newsome started the first five games of the season at left tackle before suffering a significant knee injury against Wisconsin. The Virginia native is working to return in 2017.
Cody Poock, LB, Minnesota
Minnesota’s linebacker corps is slated to lose Jack Lynn (77 tackles), but this unit will get a boost with the return of Poock. The Iowa native ranked as the team’s No. 2 tackler in 2015 (99 stops) and recorded 24 stops in seven appearances in 2016. Poock was ruled out for the season in November due to a shoulder injury.
Jon Reschke, LB, Michigan State
After recording 75 tackles (5.5 for a loss) in 2015, Reschke was poised to emerge as one of the leaders for a Michigan State defense that returned only five starters. However, Reschke played in only two games due to injury and was sidelined for the rest of 2016 after recording 13 combined tackles against Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
Tracy Sprinkle, DL, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation in 2017, and this unit will receive a little extra reinforcement with Sprinkle’s return. The sophomore was penciled in as the starter for the opener against Bowling Green but suffered a knee injury and was sidelined for the rest of the year.
Matt VandeBerg, WR, Iowa
VandeBerg was Iowa’s leading receiver (65 catches) in 2015 and caught 19 passes through the first four games of 2016. However, a foot injury forced VandeBerg to miss the rest of the year. He will return as Iowa’s No. 1 target for 2017.
Keith Watkins, CB, Northwestern
Watkins was slated to take over as a full-time starter after earning two starts in 2015. However, the Ohio native was lost for the year after a preseason knee injury. His return will bolster a cornerback spot that also returns Montre Hartage (9 PBU) and Trae Williams (7 PBU).