Now coaches and fans alike are hoping the talented offensive lineman can remain healthy and help bolster a front that returns three starters from a year ago.
Vander Sanden's just happy to be back alongside his friends and teammates in the trenches.
"It was kind of freaking me out for a while, but it's a part of the game," said Vander Sanden, referring to his misfortunes of last fall. "I had bad luck last year. Hopefully all of those injury bugs are out and I can focus on my play.
"I think it's gone pretty well this spring, but there are still days when it doesn't feel the best. That's something I'm going to carry with me as part of the injury. It's been doing great, though, and I've had no problems since. It's exciting getting back in here with the guys again."
Although sporadic, the Cyclone running game has shown sparks of returning to its 2001 form when Ennis Haywood carried the offensive load and led his team to an Independence Bowl berth.
Much of that success could be linked to Vander Sanden's return, but the Inwood native prefers to give credit to the line's overall play.
"We have a ways to go yet and I'm not going to credit myself with everything since it's a team," he said. "The whole front guys, if one guy doesn't work the whole thing doesn't work. I have to give credit to everyone else, too."
In addition to regaining his form of last spring, Vander Sanden has had to learn a new position. Losing two-year starter Zach Butler to graduation, ISU moved Vander Sanden to center and inserted the freshman duo of Seth Zehr and Aaron Brant at right guard.
"I'd say it was just getting the pads on and hitting again, but I moved to center, too, so I'm learning still and picking up new plays," Vander Sanden said. "Moving to center is an adjustment for me, as well as getting the pads on and hitting again. I hadn't really hit since the beginning the fall."
‘The Chief' atop tailback depth chart
Going into his final season at ISU, Hiawatha Rutland has a lot to prove to those who have written him off. A nagging ankle injury stalled Rutland in 2002 after a strong start to the season in which he rushed for 403 yards in the Cyclones' first four games. With highly touted redshirt freshman tailback Stevie Hicks waiting in the wings, Rutland's run at ISU looked to be over heading into this spring.
One thing Rutland has going for him is his experience and everything that go along with it.
"Hiawatha Rutland is really making some plays," said running backs coach Tony Alford. "A lot of things people don't see – you watch (Rutland and Wagner) pick up blitz protections. There was a two-minute drill and they had a safety blitz coming from the weak side. The tailback scanned all the way across the formation to him and picked up the blitz. Those are intangibles that the older guys have because they've been there in those situations."
On the other hand, Hicks, despite being blessed with all of the tools to be a very productive back for the Cyclones, has been slow to pick up on the little things asked of tailbacks. As a result, he remains behind Rutland and Wagner, and has struggled moving ahead of Thompson.
"He's a little disappointed with his play, but you're talking about a young guy that's a redshirt freshman," Alford said. "Every time he does something, it's new. He gets one look one day and does it well then he gets a different look the next day. I think he's going to be fine. The kid has a bundle of talent, but it won't happen overnight."
Many Cyclone fans already handed Hicks the starting job heading into the season opener against Northern Iowa, and that's still a possibility. Offensive coaches have made it clear they don't care who earns the job, as long as he's efficient.
"In this conference, to have consistent success you'd better be able to run the football," Alford said. "Coach McCarney has been here a long time and everything has been predicated on running the football. That's not going to change. We have to establish the run and get that going. That does have to come along for us."
Moser making quite an impact
Not many spring days have gone without defensive coaches getting a big play from safety-turned-SAM linebacker Nik Moser. The 6-foot, 200-pounder surpassed starter Erik Anderson in the depth chart last week, and is setting his sights on lengthening that lead.
Coaches love Moser's speed and athleticism at the position, and he is starting to show a knack for making big hits along the line of scrimmage. He has been in on numerous sacks and stops for loss this spring, and just Wednesday demonstrated his versatility by deflecting a pass covering top receiver Lane Danielsen downfield.
"I have been very comfortable out there," said Moser, who got most of his work on special teams in 2002. "The quickness of the game is a lot different. When you're back at safety you have more time to read stuff. But when you're four yards off the line of scrimmage you have to go. You can't read and react you have to react right away."
Moser has played so well over the past two weeks that McCarney is comparing the impact of his move to that of JaMaine Billups' last fall.
"He's having a great spring and is one of the most improved players on this whole team," McCarney said. "I really hope and believe that as he gets a little bigger and stronger, that position and move can be as beneficial as it was when we moved JaMaine from running back to safety. Nik really looks good out there and is making plays. He's got confidence."