Don’t call it a comeback!
Well, for certain players in college football, the 2016 season is indeed a chance for a major comeback. Injuries, off-field issues or other circumstances can sometimes prevent players from living up to expectations. That’s why several key faces are embracing a shot at redemption the next time they take the field.
With less than a month until kickoff, SI.com offers 10 players to watch for comeback seasons in 2016.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb was on pace for a superb sophomore season in 2015 before tearing multiple ligaments in his knee on the first play from scrimmage at Tennessee on Oct. 10. To that point Chubb had rushed for 747 yards and seven touchdowns in six games. This season, a healthy Chubb returns to Athens as the bell-cow back under first-year coach Kirby Smart. Georgia fans hope the Cedartown, Ga., native can replicate the production from his true freshman season in 2014, when he rushed for 1,547 yards—fourth-most in Bulldogs history—and earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Once considered a viable Heisman candidate, Clement fumbled on a hyped junior season in 2015. Thanks to a hernia injury and a one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons, Clement managed a mere 221 yards on 48 carries in four games last fall, a major drop from his 949-yard campaign as Melvin Gordon’s backup a year earlier. Coach Paul Chryst will break in a new quarterback for the Badgers in 2016, meaning Clement should expect plenty of early carries. That’s a recipe for redemption both for the senior and for Wisconsin's ground game, which averaged its lowest rushing yards per game since 1995 last year.
James Conner, RB, Pitt
No matter their school allegiance, college football fans across the country should be rooting for Conner this fall. The former ACC Player of the Year was declared cancer-free in May, just six months after a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Conner took part in spring practice while undergoing cancer treatment, and this fall he’ll join the Panthers’ 16 returning starters on a quest for the ACC Coastal Division title. The question is whether Conner can replicate his sophomore season of 2014, when he barreled through the ACC to the tune of 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.
Kenny Hill, QB, TCU
Once dubbed “Kenny Trill” during a stint as the starting quarterback at Texas A&M, Hill enters fall camp at TCU with a chance to put his tumultuous past behind him. Hill replaced Johnny Manziel to start the 2014 season and helped the Aggies reach 5–0 that year, but he lost the starting job to Kyle Allen and was later suspended two games for violating team rules. The following January, coach Kevin Sumlin released Hill to transfer, and the quarterback spent a semester at Tarrant County College before landing at TCU last summer. After a year of learning the Horned Frogs’ offense, Hill could turn into a prime replacement for the departed Trevone Boykin—if he beats out redshirt sophomore Foster Sawyer.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Auburn fans witnessed glimpses of Lawson’s potential when he amassed 20 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2013. The defensive end then missed all of 2014 due to a knee injury and stumbled through last season with a bum hip that forced him to miss six games and continued to limit him when he returned to the field. Now, a healthy Lawson is slated to bolster the Tigers’ defensive front alongside tackle Montravius Adams. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele could use a seasoned Lawson: Auburn ranked 11th or worse in the SEC in every major defensive category in 2015.
John Ross, WR, Washington
Washington’s versatile wideout missed all of 2015 after re-aggravating a knee injury last spring following meniscus surgery. Ross’s absence was a blow to the Huskies in several facets; he’d started three games at wide receiver and four at cornerback in 2014 while serving as Washington’s primary return man on kickoffs. Ross looked explosive during the Huskies’ spring game in April, catching a touchdown and running a kick back for another score. The receiver should team with quarterback Jake Browning to build an intriguing passing attack at Washington, which is a trendy preseason pick in the Pac-12.
Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Russell looked like the next great Baylor quarterback through seven games in 2015, amassing 2,104 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. But the junior suffered a neck injury in the fourth quarter of a win over Iowa State that cut his season short. Following off-season surgery, Russell was cleared in June to participate in fall camp, and the transfer of backup Jarrett Stidham means Russell is the primary signal-calling option for the Bears. Art Briles's departure and the gutting of Baylor’s 2016 recruiting class leave questions about the program’s status as a Big 12 contender. But Russell, running back Shock Linwood and receiver KD Cannon return to Waco as three of the most talented skill players in the nation.
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
A torn ACL in UCLA’s 2015 opener against Virginia ended Vanderdoes’s junior season before it truly began (he did manage to record eight tackles and two tackles for loss before his injury). Now he is back and should play a vital role in the Bruins’ front seven in 2016. The 6'4", 305-pound defensive tackle was an All-Pac-12 Honorable mention selection in 2014 after he recorded 50 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. A healthy Vanderdoes is a welcome sight for UCLA, which ranked eighth in the conference in rushing defense last season but brings back eight defensive starters.
Nyeem Wartman-White, LB, Penn State
At least one Nittany Lions player isn’t worried about individual stats in 2016. “If we can go undefeated, and I come off the bench, that’s more important to me than me having 140 tackles,” Wartman-White told PennLive.com last month. The senior middle linebacker tore his ACL in Penn State's opener against Temple last fall and spent this spring battling junior Jason Cabinda for his old job. But no matter Wartman-White's role in 2016, expect the senior to make an impact: He finished second on the team with 75 total tackles two years ago.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Clemson rattled off an undefeated regular season, won an ACC championship and reached the national title game in 2015 without the services of its No. 1 receiver. Williams missed almost all of last season after fracturing his neck on the first series of the Tigers’ opener against Appalachian State. Now Williams, who hauled in a team-high 1,030 receiving yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014, is back for Clemson’s offense along with eight starters. That group includes Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson at quarterback, so expect a more explosive attack with Williams on the edge.