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August 4, 2007

The top players returning from injury


Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm proved last year that season-ending injuries don't have to turn into career-threatening problems.

One year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Brohm led the Cardinals to the Orange Bowl championship. Brohm injured his right thumb midway through the season and still came back to lead Louisville to a Big East title.

He now enters his senior season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and potential top overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Brohm's comeback can serve as an inspiration to the players on this list. All of them are potential stars attempting to come back from season-ending injuries.

Two of the players on this list didn't play at all last season. The others never returned to action after getting hurt at some point in the year.

All of them hope to end this season by playing in a bowl game instead of watching from the sideline.

One notable player missing from this list is Nebraska cornerback Zack Bowman, a potential high draft pick who missed the entire 2006 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Bowman also ruptured the patella tendon in his right knee this spring to put his status for Nebraska's Sept. 1 opener against Nevada in doubt, though he should return early in the season.

Bowman may be more talented than any player on this list, but his latest injury kept us from including him. All the guys listed didn't suffer any additional injuries in spring practice and should be ready for the start of the season.

Rivals.com Top 10 comeback players
1. Wake Forest RB Micah Andrews:
One of the most amazing things about Wake Forest's Cinderella run to the Atlantic Coast Conference title was that the Demon Deacons continued to win without Andrews in the lineup. Andrews rushed for 256 yards last season and was the ACC's second-leading rusher before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Deacons' third game of the season. Andrews has averaged 5.4 yards per carry during his career and possesses as much physical talent as 2005 ACC player of the year Chris Barclay, who preceded him as Wake Forest's starting tailback. If Andrews regains his peak form, Wake Forest could challenge for a second consecutive conference title.
2. Texas DT Derek Lokey and OG Cedric Dockery:
The return of these two players should help Texas control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Lokey started eight games last year before breaking his right leg. The combination of Lokey, Frank Okam and Roy Miller at defensive tackle should give Texas one of the nation's toughest run defenses. Dockery started the first six games last year before tearing the ACL in his right knee. His return will help stabilize an offensive line that must replace Rivals.com second-team All-American Justin Blalock and all-conference selections Lyle Sendlein and Kasey Studdard.
3. UCLA QB Ben Olson:
After starting UCLA's first five games of the 2006 season, Olson injured his knee against Arizona. Olson returned to practice on Nov. 7, but he never played in a game after that injury. Olson was back at full strength in spring practice and outdueled Patrick Cowan for the starting job. This 24-year-old junior now hopes his early season experience from last year will help him live up to the fanfare that accompanied his arrival at UCLA as a five-star prospect.
4. Utah QB Brian Johnson:
There might not be a more important player in the Mountain West Conference this season. Johnson ranked fourth in the nation in total offense and 11th in passing efficiency in 2005. He threw for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns that year before suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-November. The injury also prevented him from playing at all last season, but Johnson has regained his health and will try to help Utah knock off conference favorites Texas Christian and Brigham Young.
5. Colorado State RB Kyle Bell:
He rushed for 8,248 yards in high school to become Colorado's all-time leading prep rusher. He also enjoyed similar success in college initially. Bell ranked second in the Mountain West Conference two years ago with 1,288 rushing yards, the most of any sophomore in school history. Bell's road to stardom hit a detour last year when he tore the ACL in his right knee during the preseason and sat out the entire year. Colorado State's chances of earning a bowl bid could depend on whether Bell can match his 2005 production.
6. Penn State RB Austin Scott:
When Tony Hunt injured his ankle early in the 2006 Orange Bowl, Scott entered the game and rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the 26-23 triple-overtime victory over Florida State. Scott couldn't build on the momentum from that performance because he missed the entire 2006 season with an ankle injury. The Nittany Lions didn't really need Scott last year because Hunt was rushing for 1,386 yards and 11 touchdowns during an outstanding senior season. Now that Hunt has left for the NFL, Scott is one of the biggest keys to Penn State's season. The Nittany Lions probably won't seriously challenge for a Big Ten title unless Scott at least comes close to matching Hunt's 2006 performance.
7. Louisiana State OG Will Arnold:
This guy has established such a reputation that he earned second-team all-SEC honors last year even after knee and ankle injuries limited him to only five games. Arnold didn't play after Sept. 30 and also sat out all of spring practice, but he still is considered one of the top guards in the nation. Arnold has given up only three sacks and has been penalized just twice during a career in which he has played 1,009 snaps.
8. Arkansas LB Freddie Fairchild:
After earning first-team Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com in 2005, Fairchild opened last season by collecting a career-high 11 tackles in a loss to Southern California. However, he tore the ACL in his right knee the following week and never returned to action. Fairchild came back this spring and reclaimed his job as the Razorbacks' starting strong-side linebacker. If the knee doesn't bother him, Fairchild should emerge as the star of Arkansas' linebacking corps and may challenge for all-conference honors.
9. Oklahoma State LB Chris Collins:
As a true freshman, Collins was leading Oklahoma State in tackles before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of the year. Collins showed his big-play ability by blocking a punt in his college debut and later returned a fumble for a touchdown. He performed well enough in half a season to earn second-team Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com. The Cowboys believe Collins can develop into a star. Collins first must withstand a major off-field distraction, as he has a pre-trial hearing later this month on a sexual assault case stemming from a 2004 incident.
10. Southern California DB Josh Pinkard:
He looked like a star in the making last year before tearing the ACL in his right knee during the season opener. Pinkard missed most of spring practice, but he now is back to compete for playing time on a USC defense overflowing with talent. Pinkard was listed as the Trojans' starting free safety before getting hurt last year, but he now finds himself behind former Rivals.com Freshman All-American Taylor Mays on the depth chart. Although he may struggle to win a spot in the starting lineup, the speedy Pinkard has too much talent to be left off this list.
Others considered
Florida State LB Marcus Ball, Auburn TE Cole Bennett, Connecticut DE Cody Brown, Georgia RB Thomas Brown, Florida State DT Paul Griffin, South Carolina DT Marque Hall, Western Michigan QB Tim Hiller, Notre Dame WR D.J. Hord, Vanderbilt RB Jeff Jennings, Cincinnati QB Ben Mauk, South Florida RB Moise Plancher, Vanderbilt OT Brian Stamper, Miami QB Kyle Wright.
The Rivals five
The following five players also struggled with injuries throughout last season, though they returned to action by the end of the year.
1. Iowa State WR Todd Blythe:
This former first-team all-Big 12 selection had a combined 1,833 receiving yards in 2004 and 2005, but he missed three games with a virus last year and finished the season with 434 receiving yards. Blythe still caught eight touchdown passes last season and now has 26 career scores. A big season from Blythe could help Iowa State quarterback Bret Meyer bounce back from a relatively disappointing junior season.
2. Michigan State RB Javon Ringer:
He rushed for 432 yards in the Spartans' first four games last year including a 156-yard effort against Pittsburgh before missing four full games with a knee injury that was supposed to keep him out for the rest of the season. Ringer came back in time to play the Spartans' last three games, but he had just 25 carries for 59 yards after his return. The Spartans won't earn a bowl bid this year unless Ringer bounces back and re-establishes himself as a breakaway threat.
3. Iowa DE Kenny Iwebema:
Although Iwebema earned some preseason All-America consideration last year after collecting 10 tackles for loss as a sophomore, a shoulder injury prevented him from living up to that acclaim. Iwebema missed three full games and portions of others before returning in time for the Alamo Bowl. He finished the year with five tackles for loss and 27 overall tackles 21 fewer than his 2005 total. Iwebema has enough talent to develop into one of the Big Ten's top pass rushers if he can stay healthy.
4. Georgia K Brandon Coutu:
You can make a decent argument that Georgia would have finished 11-2 instead of 9-4 last year if a torn hamstring hadn't caused Coutu to miss seven games. Without Coutu in uniform, Andy Bailey missed a 38-yard field goal in a 24-22 loss to Vanderbilt and misfired on two field-goal attempts and had an extra point blocked in a 24-20 setback at Kentucky. Coutu returned in time to kick a 51-yarder in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Virginia Tech and finished the season 10-of-11 on field-goal attempts. Coutu enters his senior year as a legitimate All-America candidate.
5. San Diego State QB Kevin O'Connell:
After throwing for 2,663 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore, O'Connell missed six games with an injured right thumb last year and never matched his 2005 effectiveness. He ended up passing for only 635 yards and three touchdowns. San Diego State needs this three-year team captain at full strength to have any hope of earning a bowl bid. O'Connell's size (6-foot-6) and speed (906 career rushing yards) make him difficult to contain.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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