The dawn of a new college football season gives each team the opportunity to start with a clean slate. But for some players, a new season marks the last step in a journey back to the football field from injury. Here’s a look at some of the top impact players returning from injury that you can root for regardless of your favorite team.
James Conner, RB, Pitt
Right MCL Tear, September 2015 & Hodgkin lymphoma, December 2015
Conner is making one of the more heroic returns to college football in recent memory. Just months after suffering a season-ending MCL injury in the first half of Pitt’s 2015 season opener, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He vowed to beat his cancer, continuing to rehab from his knee injury vigorously while balancing the Panthers’ winter workouts and chemotherapy sessions.
In May, Conner announced he was cancer-free and his new goal was to return to his 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year form. When Conner comes out of the tunnel on September 3, it will be as exciting as it is emotional. With good health, there’s no reason we won’t see Conner return to his rightful place among the elite ACC running backs.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Broken Bone in Neck, September 2015
A season-ending injury in the first game of the season is pretty rough. But a season-ending injury in the first drive of the year on a play where you caught a touchdown pass – that’s downright brutal.
Such was the misfortune of Clemson receiver Mike Williams, who broke a bone in his neck after colliding with the goal post on a four-yard touchdown pass to cap the Tigers’ first drive of the 2015 season. In 2014, Williams caught 57 passes for a team-high 1,030 yards and six touchdowns, and remains one of the most dangerous big play targets on a stacked Clemson offense.
Jon Hilliman, RB, Boston College
Broken Left Foot, September 2015
Hilliman is one of the best players in the ACC that you’ve probably never heard of. As a true freshman in 2014 Hilliman set a Boston College freshman record with 210 carries and was second in the ACC with 13 rushing touchdowns. He played just four games in 2015 (51 carries, 198 yards, two touchdowns) before a broken left foot ended his season. If Hilliman can stay healthy, he might be one of the biggest surprises in the ACC and across the country.
Bryon Fields, CB, Duke
Torn Right ACL, August 2015
With All-American safety Jeremy Cash gone, the Blue Devils couldn’t be happier to get Bryon Fields back. Fields missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL in fall camp. He showed strong promise in 2014, starting all 13 games and registering 70 tackles. Duke will rely heavily on Fields and standout corner DeVon Edwards to hold down a secondary that allowed 240.9 passing yards per game and 23 touchdowns last season.
Gus Edwards, RB, Miami
Left Foot Injury, August 2015
Edwards is one of the biggest question mark players on one of the ACC’s biggest question mark teams. A foot injury in fall camp sidelined Edwards for the 2015 season after he made the most of limited action in 2014 – rushing for 349 yards and six touchdowns on 61 carries. Edwards will probably start the season as Miami’s third running back on their depth chart, but his big, physical running style should pair well with speedsters Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby.
Matt Dayes, RB, NC State
Turf Toe, November 2015
Before a season-ending turf toe injury in Week 9 against Clemson, Dayes was having a phenomenal season. At the time of his injury he ranked third in the ACC in rushing yards (865), led the conference in rushing touchdowns (12) and his 108.1 yards per game were the most by an NC State running back since 1981. Dayes says he is 100 percent and should be the top playmaker for the Wolfpack this season.
Thomas Sirk, QB, Duke
Ruptured Left Achilles Tendon, February 2016
Duke’s 2016 success will hinge on the health of Thomas Sirk. He ruptured his left Achilles tendon less than seven months ago, but says he’s practicing pain-free and expects to start the season-opener. A healthy Sirk is huge for the Blue Devils, as he’s shown solid potential when healthy. It’s worth noting that Sirk also ruptured his right Achilles in 2013 and missed the entire season.
Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse
Head Injury, November 2015
Thrust into action in just the second offensive series of the season, Dungey showed serious potential as a true freshman before a head injury sidelined him the final three games. In 2015, he saw action in eight games, starting seven, and threw for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dungey also displayed his ability to make plays with is legs, rushing for 351 yards and five touchdowns. He is marked as one of the potential breakout quarterbacks of 2016, but he’ll have to do a better job of protecting himself outside of the pocket to ensure he stays healthy.