Injuries are a big part of any college football season. 2011 was no different, as losing Knile Davis was a key setback to Arkansas' hopes of winning the SEC West last year, while Missouri's offensive line had to shuffle some players around after Elvis Fisher was lost for the year with a knee injury.
Although those players were missed in 2011, their return to the gridiron is an even bigger storyline for 2012.
Top 10 Players Returning After Missing All of 2011 With Injury
Note: This list includes only players who missed all of 2011.
1. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas – With quarterback Tyler Wilson turning down the NFL Draft, the Razorbacks were already expected to be one of the SEC’s best offenses in 2012. However, this unit will be even more dangerous if Davis comes back at full strength from an ankle injury. The junior had a breakout season in 2010, rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 scores. He also added 19 receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown. With Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo returning, the Razorback coaching staff won’t be forced to throw Davis into a full workload early in the year. Although all signs point to a return to full strength, the junior could be brought along slow through the first two weeks of the year, as Arkansas prepares for its Sept. 15 showdown against Alabama.
2. Josh Dworaczyk, OG, LSU – The Tigers owned one of college football’s top offensive lines last season, and this group is expected to be one of the best once again in 2012. Tackles Alex Hurst and Chris Faulk are two All-American candidates at tackle, while there’s plenty of experience returning with senior center P.J. Lonergan and guard Josh Williford. Dworaczyk made 26 consecutive starts prior to last season and will be expected to start at left guard in 2012. The senior suffered a knee injury in fall practice last season, but he did not experience any setbacks in his recovery and all signs point to a big senior season.
3. Elvis Fisher, OT, Missouri – The SEC is home to some of college football’s best defensive lines, so getting Fisher back in the lineup will be a huge boost to Missouri’s offense. He missed all of 2011 with a knee injury and is expected to slide back into the lineup at left tackle. The injury snapped a 40-game start streak for Fisher, as he was expected to be one of the Big 12’s top linemen last year. The senior earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2009 and 2010, and if he returns at full strength, expect Fisher to have a spot on one of the SEC’s first, second or third all-conference teams at the end of the season.
4. Josh Jenkins, OG, West Virginia – The Mountaineers never seemed to jell on the offensive line last year, as the unit allowed 30 sacks and struggled to open up rushing lanes. This group should be better in 2012, especially with another offseason to work in coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Jenkins has yet to fulfill the hype surrounding him out of high school, but he has 24 career starts and will return to the lineup at left guard. Combine Jenkins’ coming back to full strength with three returning starters up front, and the Mountaineers should have an improved offensive line in 2012.
5. Brandon Magee, LB, Arizona State – A torn Achilles sidelined Magee for all of last season, and the Sun Devils are counting on him to be a team leader and one of the unit’s best players in 2012. Magee started 11 games in 2010 and recorded 73 stops. He also registered 34 tackles in 2009 and 11 as a freshman in 2008. An Achilles tear is one of the most difficult injuries for a football player to return from, but Magee is on track to return for the season opener. Even if the senior isn’t 100 percent early in the year, his leadership will be valuable for a defense that returns just four starters.
6. Herman Lathers, LB, Tennessee – After recording 75 tackles and three sacks in 2010, Lathers was on the verge of a breakout season in 2011. However, he suffered a fractured ankle in early June, which forced him to sit out all of last year. Lathers returned at full strength for spring practice and should be the leader of a linebacking corps that returns promising sophomores A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. With 14 teams in the SEC, it won’t be easy cracking one of the three all-conference teams. However, if Lathers picks up where he left off in 2010, he will have a chance to rank among the conference’s top 10-15 linebackers in 2012.
7. Jake Fischer, LB, Arizona – 2011 was not a banner year for Arizona’s defense. The Wildcats allowed 35.4 points a game and ranked last in the Pac-12 in pass and total defense. This unit received a makeover during the offseason, as Jeff Casteel left West Virginia and brought his 3-3-5 scheme to Tucson. Depth is a major concern for Arizona at linebacker, but Fischer’s return should help bring some stability to this unit. He played in all 13 contests and recorded 58 stops and 7.5 tackles for a loss in 2010. Fischer suffered a torn ACL in the spring of 2011 and was forced to miss all 12 contests. With a new scheme and the recovery from a knee injury, the junior could start slow in 2012. However, Fischer will be Arizona’s top linebacker this year and needs to stay healthy with very little depth behind him.
8. Pete Massaro, DE, Penn State – With the departures of defensive linemen Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and Devon Still, Massaro’s return to the lineup is a welcomed addition for coach Bill O’Brien. He started the final 11 games in 2010 and recorded 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Massaro missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL, which was the second time in his career he suffered that injury (2009). It may take the senior a couple of games to knock off the rust, but his return is crucial for a unit that needs players to step up in 2012.
9. Dee Hart, RB, Alabama – With Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy leading the way on the ground, Hart’s absence wasn’t a huge loss for Alabama last year. He was expected to be the Crimson Tide’s change-of-pace back and a potential weapon on special teams but suffered a torn ACL in summer workouts. With a full year to get healthy, Hart should be 100 percent for the season opener. He ranked among the top 100 recruits in the 2011 signing class by most services and flashed his potential with 76 total yards in the spring game. Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and freshman T.J. Yeldon will all see carries, but Hart’s all-around ability should allow him to see a handful of snaps each game.
10. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue – The Boilermakers have had some bad luck with knee injuries in recent years, and 2011 was no exception. Henry had a solid debut season in 2010, throwing for 996 yards and eight touchdowns, while also adding 547 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He was ready to assume full control of Purdue’s quarterback spot but suffered a torn ACL in fall practice and was forced to sit out all of 2011. Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve handled the quarterback duties in Henry’s absence and both return to West Lafayette in 2012. With TerBush turning in a steady 2011 campaign under center last season, the coaching staff is considering using Henry in a variety of roles, including some snaps at running back and receiver. Even if he doesn’t start at quarterback, Henry is poised to play a key role in the Boilermakers’ offense in 2012.
Other Key Players Returning After Sitting Out 2011
Mustafa Greene, RB, NC State
Willie Haulstead, WR, Florida State
Deantre Lewis, RB, Arizona State
Jonathan McKnight, CB, Arizona
Warren Norman, RB, Vanderbilt
Michael Philipp, OL, Oregon State
Brandon Wimberly, WR, Nevada
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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