15 For '15: Welcome Back

15 For '15: Welcome Back. Who are the key stars who missed 2014? The 15 guys back in the mix.

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Time heals all wounds … at least that’s the hope of coaching staffs around the country.

To suggest that injuries and suspensions are an important component of the sport would be an understatement. Every program endures them. And every coach aims to build depth throughout the year for when the inevitable occurs. Stars are not immune to mishaps, on and off the field, landing on some surgeon’s gurney or in some coach’s doghouse about as often as the journeymen. More times than not, it’s one of the lower extremities, like a knee or a leg, in need of repair. While schools have no choice but to adapt to the loss of fallen playmakers, it doesn’t mean that their returns from rehab won’t be greeted with excitement and relief.

Though they haven’t played in over a year, they certainly have not been forgotten. If all goes well during the offseason, a handful, in particular, boast the talent to go from inactive last season to invaluable by mid-September.

15. LB Jabari Ruffin, USC
Ruffin was closely in on a starting job in his third season with the Trojans when he tore his ACL during an Aug. 10 practice. His healthy return could create flexibility for coordinator Justin Wilcox, who’ll have the option to keep star Su’a Cravens at strongside or move him back to strong safety, his original position. The 6-3, 240-pound Ruffin has both the size and the long arms to become an effective pass rusher off the edge.

14. S Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami
When back problems required offseason surgery, Jenkins’ experience and savvy was missed by the ‘Cane defensive backfield. The surgery is expected to correct a chronic condition that affected Jenkins even when he was the starter in 2013, so he could be like new as a junior in 2015. At a minimum, his return means Miami will be deep and proven at safety, since Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford are back as well.

13. CB Charles Jackson, Nebraska
Jackson was on the fast track to a starting nickel job when an ACL injury in August shut him down for the entire season. The good news, though, is that the former four-star recruit from the 2011 class has been cleared for contact this spring, and he still has two years of eligibility left. Jackson is considered one of the top all-around athletes in Lincoln, so Mike Riley’s staff is eager to see him in action.

12. TE Braxton Deaver, Duke
When Deaver was granted a sixth year of eligibility last November, the 2015 passing game received an immediate boost. The tight end has actually missed two of the last three years to injury, and even contemplated retirement last fall. But instead, Deaver will attempt to recapture his 2013 form, in which he parlayed 46 receptions for 600 yards and four touchdowns into Third Team All-ACC. His ACL recovery has gone well, though he’s yet to be cleared for contact.

11. WR Christian Jones, Northwestern
The Wildcat offense was forced to play with a hand tied behind its back after RB Venric Mark left the team and Jones injured his knee within a few days of one another in August. Jones was the program’s top receiver, entering his senior season with 105 career receptions for 1,275 yards and six touchdowns. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, he’s a matchup headache who can box out defenders in pursuit of the ball.

10. DT Kenny Bigelow, USC
The highly anticipated kickoff to Bigelow’s Trojan career was put on hold after he tore his ACL during a voluntary workout last July. After redshirting in 2013, the five-star recruit from Maryland was expected to begin making noise before suffering the freak injury. Bigelow is the rare and coveted interior lineman who can beat opponents with his raw power and unexpected agility. And Troy is in need of D-linemen who can offset the departure of Leonard Williams.

9. LB Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska
Rose-Ivey took off in the second half of his rookie season, racking up more tackles than any freshman in Husker history. But his encore was delayed by a torn ACL last August. It was a particularly tough setback for a player who’d spent the offseason getting in tip-top shape to prove he was every-down timber. Rose-Ivey should be at full strength in time for fall camp, a welcome development for a Nebraska linebacker unit that’s struggled in recent years.

8. LB Kelby Brown, Duke
Brown is climbing up rehab mountain one more time. He’s torn his ACL three times in Durham, including last August, to warrant a sixth year of eligibility. When healthy, Brown is one of the ACC’s premier linebackers and a leader in the Blue Devil locker room. In 2013, he peaked with 114 tackles, 11 stops for loss and two interceptions in an all-star campaign. Brown will take it slow this offseason before fully testing the knee again in the summer.

7. OG Alex Kozan, Auburn
The Tigers cannot wait to get Kozan back on the field for his second season on the Plains. As a rookie in 2013, the Freshman All-American started the entire year for the SEC champs, impressing with his drive blocking and fundamentals. But a back injury while lifting weights last summer required season-ending surgery. Kozan is going to recapture a starting gig somewhere, either back at guard or as Reese Dismukes’ successor at center.

6. LB Frank Shannon, Oklahoma
The expectation around Norman is that Shannon will return to the Sooners once his year-long suspension from the school ends in May. What OU lost when Shannon was shelved in 2014 was a linebacker who was just coming into his own. As a sophomore in 2013, he amassed a team-high 92 tackles to earn honorable mention All-Big 12. Shannon is a difference-maker who can be especially disruptive when combined with fellow Sooner LB Eric Striker.

5. WR Bralon Addison, Oregon
Addison is the quintessential Duck playmaker, explosive, elusive and lightning fast as a receiver and return man. He had All-American potential in 2014 as Marcus Mariota’s favorite target. But a knee injury in April instantly changed his fortune and kept him from playing a single down. Addison blossomed into a young star as a sophomore by catching 61 balls for 890 yards and seven touchdowns, adding two punt returns for six versus Cal. He’ll be the best friend of Mariota’s successor.

4. CB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
No, it’s not a done deal yet. But the Irish are cautiously optimistic that Russell’s academic tribulations will be resolved in time to return to the program. The two-year starter was suspended for the entire 2014 season, yet he hit the books and the training regimen hard back in his home state of Washington. Russell is one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, and his return to South Bend would answer seamlessly address the departure of underrated CB Cody Riggs.

3. OT Tyler Johnstone, Oregon
Johnstone was a microcosm for a Duck O-line that was hampered by injuries throughout the 2014 season. The team’s starting left tackle reinjured his ACL in August to snap his streak of 26 straight starts and create a huge void up front in Eugene. But Johnstone is returning to anchor the Oregon front wall with a skill set that was tailored to the first round of the NFL Draft before the injury occurred.

2. DE Carl Lawson, Auburn
Lawson had all the ingredients of a breakout star—the blue-chip recruit who performed like one in his 2013 debut. Unfortunately, his sophomore season never got off the ground, thanks to an offseason knee injury. Lawson has healed well, and will return to the Tigers without limitations this fall. He’s an explosive and powerful pass rusher who’ll generate comparison to Dante Fowler Jr., one of new coordinator Will Muschamp’s prized pupils at Florida.

1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
If nothing else, Miller will have options. Plenty of enticing options. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is certainly wanted and appreciated in Columbus. But a much-publicized shoulder injury opened the door for J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones to bloom into unlikely heroes last year. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman voting, while Jones helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship. Miller will be back in pads this fall. The color of the jersey draped over those pads, though, remains a hot topic for debate.


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