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 SEC. Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker, Tennessee defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, LSU linebacker Corey Thompson, South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore and Arkansas linebacker Dre Greenlaw are just a few of the top players returning from injury into SEC action this fall.
Additionally, Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio and Ole Miss cornerback Ken Webster are just a few of the other key players slated to return to action around the SEC in 2017.
20 Key SEC Players Returning From Injury in 2017
Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky
Patrick Towles’ transfer to Boston College paved the way for Barker to become Kentucky’s starting quarterback last fall. However, Barker’s stint under center was a short one. The Kentucky native suffered a back injury in early September and was limited to just three games (18 of 36 for 334 yards). Junior college recruit Stephen Johnson received the majority of snaps under center the rest of the way and returns to compete with Barker for the starting job this offseason.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2017
Terry Beckner, DL, Missouri
Beckner was a huge pickup in the 2015 signing class, as the Illinois native ranked as a five-star recruit and was an impact addition under former coach Gary Pinkel. Beckner wasted no time making an impact as a true freshman, recording 27 tackles (eight for a loss) before a season-ending knee injury in 2015. Beckner returned in time for the 2016 campaign but was sidelined in mid-October with another season-ending knee injury. Getting Beckner back to full strength is critical for Missouri’s defense, especially after top edge rusher Charles Harris left for the NFL.
Nate Brown, WR, Missouri
Missouri’s offense finished second in the SEC by averaging 295.4 passing yards per game in 2016. Coordinator Josh Heupel and quarterback Drew Lock will have another talented weapon at their disposal in 2017, as Brown returns to action after sitting out last year due to an ankle injury. Brown ranked second on the team in 2015 with 27 catches for 326 yards and four scores.
Tolando Cleveland, CB, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s secondary suffered an early setback in fall camp when Cleveland was lost for the year due to a knee injury. Prior to 2016, Cleveland played in 38 games with the Bulldogs and accumulated 80 stops (seven for a loss) and 13 passes defended. Assuming Cleveland is 100 percent, he should return to handle a significant role in the secondary for new coordinator Todd Grantham.
Quartney Davis, WR, Texas A&M
Davis ranked as one of the top recruits in Texas A&M’s 2016 signing class but suffered a preseason knee injury and was ruled out for the year. With Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones departing for the NFL, and Josh Reynolds expiring his eligibility, Davis could be one of the top targets in Texas A&M’s offense for 2017.
Jamel Dean, DB, Auburn
Dean ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2015 signing class and originally started his career at Ohio State before landing at Auburn. The Florida native sat out 2015 as a redshirt and was poised to claim a starting role in 2016 before a preseason knee injury. Assuming Dean returns to full strength, he will give Auburn’s secondary a talented trio of cornerbacks, which is headlined by the return of Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis for 2017.
Luke Del Rio, QB, Florida
Del Rio earned the starting job prior to the 2016 campaign and threw for 1,358 yards and eight scores in six appearances. However, a knee injury forced Del Rio to miss games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt and a shoulder ailment prevented him from playing in the final five contests of 2016. Del Rio is expected to miss spring practice after offseason shoulder surgery, which allows redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks a chance to stake his claim for the starting job.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama
Alabama’s defense is losing a couple of key contributors from its 2016 unit, including standout linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, along with All-America end Jonathan Allen. Dion Hamilton should be one of the leaders for this group in 2017, as he returns from a knee injury suffered against Florida in the SEC Championship. Prior to the injury, Dion Hamilton recorded 64 tackles (nine for a loss) and one forced fumble.
Dre Greenlaw, LB, Arkansas
Greenlaw was an emerging star entering the 2016 season for coach Bret Bielema. As a freshman in 2015, Greenlaw ranked as one of the SEC’s top freshmen by recording 95 stops and two forced fumbles. However, Greenlaw’s 2016 season was derailed by a foot injury suffered against Alabama in early October. He returned for the Belk Bowl and recorded six tackles against Virginia Tech.
Christian LaCouture, DL, LSU
Lewis Neal expired his eligibility and Davon Godchaux left Baton Rouge for the NFL, but the Tigers won’t have to look far for help on the defensive line. LaCouture returns to the lineup after missing all of 2016 due to a knee injury. The Nebraska native has 23 career starts at LSU and recorded 86 tackles (eight for a loss) and 4.5 sacks in his three years on campus.
Connor Lanfear, OL, Texas A&M
Lanfear was a key cog in Texas A&M’s 2016 offensive line, as he recorded eight starts through the first nine games last fall. However, Lanfear suffered a season-ending injury against Mississippi State. He returns to help anchor a group that returns two other full-time starters from last year.
De’Niro Laster, LB, Kentucky
Laster sat out 2015 as a transfer from Minnesota and cracked the two-deep prior to 2016 as a backup linebacker. In five appearances, Laster recorded 14 stops, one sack and two tackles for a loss. However, he was lost for the year in mid-October due to injury. He should provide depth at linebacker once again in 2017.
Dre Massey, WR, Florida
Massey was penciled in as a key contributor for Florida’s receiving corps last season but suffered a knee injury in the opener and missed the remainder of the year. Massey ranked as the No. 27 junior college recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 signing class.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
South Carolina’s defense suffered a significant setback before the 2016 season, as Moore was ruled out due to a neck injury. The Florida native was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2015 after recording 111 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three forced fumbles. Moore’s return is a huge boost for South Carolina’s defense in 2017.
Eric Swinney, RB, Ole Miss
Swinney was poised to push for a major role in the Ole Miss backfield last season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Florida State in the opener. With Akeem Judd expiring his eligibility, Swinney should once again push for significant carries this offseason.
Corey Thompson, DB/LB, LSU
Thompson was expected to be used in a versatile linebacker/safety role for coordinator Dave Aranda last season but missed all of 2016 due to injury. Prior to the injury, Thompson was penciled in as a starter. The Texas native has played in 31 games since 2012 and recorded 66 tackles and three pass breakups. If healthy, Thompson should return to the linebacker/safety role in 2017.
Shy Tuttle/Kahlil McKenzie, DL, Tennessee
Tennessee’s defense was hit hard by injuries last season, with the line losing two key cogs on the interior. Tuttle suffered a season-ending leg injury against South Carolina, while McKenzie was lost for the year after a pectoral injury in mid-October. Getting both players back to 100 percent for 2017 is essential with end Derek Barnett off to the NFL. Tuttle ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class, while McKenzie was the No. 6 overall prospect by the 247Sports Composite.
Ken Webster, CB, Ole Miss
Webster started all 13 games for the Rebels in 2015 and was slated to push for All-SEC honors as a junior in 2016. However, Webster was injured in the opener against Florida State and missed the rest of the entire year. In 2015, Webster recorded 41 tackles, 11 pass breakups and one interception. His return is critical for a secondary that loses Carlos Davis, Tony Bridges, Derrick Jones and Tony Conner.
Darius West, S, Kentucky
With the return of cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity, and the emergence of safety Mike Edwards, Kentucky has the makings of a solid secondary for 2017. Coach Mark Stoops also has help coming in the form of West, who missed 2016 due to a knee injury. As a freshman in 2015, West recorded 17 tackles in 10 appearances. He’s expected to push for a starting job this offseason.
Other Key Players Returning From Injury
Evan Berry, DB, Tennessee
Justin Dunning, DB, Texas A&M
Paul James, DE, Auburn
D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss
Kevin Richardson II, DB, Arkansas
Antonio Riles, OL, Florida
Britto Tutt, DB, Arkansas
Kobie Walker, LB, Kentucky
Isaiah Washington, DL, LSU