Injuries are an unfortunate part of any college football season and usually take a toll on all 128 teams by the end of the year. Several key players were hit by the injury bug in 2015, including a handful of big names from the Big Ten. Wisconsin running back Corey Clement, Nebraska wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, Michigan State cornerback Vayante Copeland and Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White are just a few of the top players returning from injury into Big Ten action this fall.
In addition to Copeland, Pierson-El, Wartman-White and Clement, Purdue linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and Ohio State receiver Corey Smith are a few of the other names returning to action this fall. Here's a look at the top players back in action after missing significant time in 2015:
Big Ten's Top Players Returning from Injury in 2016
Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue
Bentley was considered one of the Big Ten’s rising stars last season and was expected to challenge for all-conference honors after a standout freshman campaign. In 2014, Bentley played in all 12 games for the Boilermakers and recorded 76 tackles and one interception. And the Maryland native was off to a fast start in 2015, recording 49 stops (7.5 for a loss) and two passes defended before a season-ending ACL tear after the fifth game. Assuming Bentley returns at full strength, he should be the leader for Purdue’s linebacking corps and a contender for All-Big Ten honors.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2016
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
After rushing for 949 yards and nine scores in a backup role to Melvin Gordon in 2014, Clement was all set to take over the No. 1 role in the Wisconsin backfield last year. However, Clement’s season was derailed by a hernia, as he managed only 221 yards in four appearances. With a full offseason to recover, all signs point to Clement returning to full strength and leading the way for Wisconsin’s ground attack.
Vayante Copeland, CB, Michigan State
Michigan State’s secondary surrendered 20 touchdown passes last season, which was the program’s highest mark allowed since 2011. The Spartans certainly weren’t awful against the pass last season, but there was room for improvement. This unit will take a step forward in 2016, as the safety combination of Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox is the best in the Big Ten, and Copeland’s return should settle one of the cornerback spots. Prior to a season-ending neck injury after Michigan State’s second game last season, Copeland recorded seven tackles and one pass breakup. The sophomore has all of the necessary tools to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top cornerbacks this season.
Ed Davis, LB, Michigan State
Davis has some work to do in order to return to the team in 2016, as the senior has to take summer classes to finish his undergraduate degree. Provided Davis has his undergraduate degree, Michigan State can apply for a sixth year of eligibility after he missed 2015 due to a torn ACL. If Davis returns to East Lansing in 2016, he will add to a linebacking corps that is among the best in the nation. In 13 appearances in 2014, Davis recorded 58 tackles (12 for a loss) and seven sacks and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Even if Davis doesn’t start in 2016, he will be a key cog in the defense and should provide a boost to the pass rush off the edge.
Dennis Finley, OL, Michigan State
Michigan State’s offensive line has to be retooled following the departure of three starters – Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donavon Clark. There’s a good foundation in place with the return of junior Brian Allen and seniors Benny McGowan and Kodi Kieler. Additionally, this unit received a boost in June, as Brandon Clemons was awarded a sixth year of eligibility. Finley played in two games last season but was sidelined after a broken leg against Purdue on Oct. 3. Finley is on track to return to full strength by the opener and is expected to start at left tackle. If Finley returns to 100 percent, his play on the left side could play a key role in stabilizing the rebuilt line.
Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers
It’s no secret Rutgers has to improve on defense after giving up 34.9 points a game last season. However, new coach Chris Ash was one of the Big Ten’s top defensive assistants at Ohio State and will immediately bolster a unit that returns seven starters. Additionally, Hamilton’s return from injury is a key boost to a front seven that allowed 186.1 rushing yards per game in 2015. Hamilton has played in 39 career games and recorded 110 tackles (24.5 for a loss). The senior should push for All-Big Ten honors this fall.
Bryan Mone, DT, Michigan
Mone was slated to play a key role on the interior of Michigan’s defense last season but a broken leg in fall camp kept the Utah native on the sidelines for 2015. Mone played in 12 games in 2014 and recorded nine tackles and one fumble recovery. The sophomore is slated to once again be one of the top interior defenders for new coordinator Don Brown.
De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR, Nebraska
Nebraska owns one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps for 2016, and this unit could be even more dangerous if Pierson-El returns to full strength after a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 31 against Purdue. The knee injury capped a frustrating year for Pierson-El, as an offseason foot injury prevented him from playing in the first four games. However, Pierson-El’s talent was on full display as a freshman in 2014 when he accounted for 1,074 total yards in 13 games. When healthy, Pierson-El is one of the Big Ten’s top all-purpose players and a dynamic option on returns.
David Shaw, DL, Maryland
Shaw opened 2015 as one of the starters for Maryland’s defensive line but suffered a season-ending elbow injury against West Virginia. In four games of action last year, Shaw recorded six tackles, with three coming against the Mountaineers on Sept. 26. With the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Melvin Keihn and freshman Adam McLean, there’s added competition to the Maryland defensive front for 2016. Shaw may not post huge numbers for new coach D.J. Durkin’s defense, but he should be a valuable cog in the line rotation.
Corey Smith/Noah Brown, WR, Ohio State
Five of Ohio State’s top six statistical options in the passing game last season won’t return to Columbus for 2016. Thanks to elite recruiting, the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for talent in the receiving corps. However, the rebuilding effort for this unit is likely to start with Smith and Brown – two players coming off season-ending injuries. Brown was expected to play a key role in the receiving corps last season but suffered a leg injury in August and missed the entire year. Smith caught five passes through the first five games last season but suffered a broken leg against Indiana. Both players are expected to factor prominently into the receiving corps this season.
Damarius Travis, DB, Minnesota
Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun must be replaced, but Minnesota’s secondary will get a boost with the return of Travis from injury. The Florida native made a big impact in the opener against TCU last year, recording 10 stops in a 23-17 loss against the Horned Frogs. However, Travis missed the rest of the season due to a hamstring injury. As a junior in 2014, Travis recorded 61 tackles (3.5 for a loss) and five pass breakups. Even though Murray and Boddy-Calhoun will be missed, the return of Travis into the starting lineup, along with the development of Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin at cornerback should prevent a big drop off in the secondary.
Dan Voltz, OL, Wisconsin
The offensive line is usually an annual strength for Wisconsin, but the Badgers had their share of ups and downs up front last season. However, after four sophomores gained valuable experienced in 2015, this unit is expected to take a step forward this fall. Additionally, Voltz is slated to return to the lineup after missing the final six games of 2015 after a knee injury in October. With Michael Deiter emerging at center, Voltz is expected to slide to guard for 2016. Over the last three years, Voltz has started 27 games and played in 32 contests.
Nyeem Wartman-White, LB, Penn State
With Bob Shoop leaving to take over the play-calling duties at Tennessee, Penn State’s defense will be the under the direction of Brent Pry in 2016. Pry has worked for the last five years (three at Vanderbilt and two at Penn State) with Shoop, so the overall direction and scheme of the defense shouldn’t change too much. However, Pry has plenty of work to do this offseason, as the Nittany Lions must revamp their defensive line after the departure of three key players. However, the front seven returns a strong linebacking corps, headlined by Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda after both players turned in solid 2015 campaigns. Additionally, Nyeem Wartman-White rejoins the starting linebacker trio after missing 12 games due to a knee injury last year. However, Wartman-White was a key cog in the defense in 2014, ranking second on the team with 75 tackles (3.5 for a loss) and one interception. Assuming Wartman-White is back to full strength, Penn State’s linebacker unit will rank among the best in the Big Ten.