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September 26, 2012
Feature: James Wilder Jr. finds focus in 2012
James Wilder Jr. took the football once more and flung his chiseled 226-pound frame into the middle of the Wake Forest defense, a fourth-quarter run that surely loosened chin straps and unglued another chunk of morale.
Wilder picked himself up, jogged to the huddle and heard submission from a Wake linebacker.
I'm tired of hitting No. 32.
"Those quotes I like to hear," Wilder said.
Blessed with an NFL bloodline and a linebacker's build, physical punishment is Wilder's game. Wilder delivers the boom for a dynamic FSU running attack that leads the nation in yards per carry (7.5), touchdowns (20) and ranks No. 8 nationally in rushing offense. He expects the bring the battering again as he returns to his native Tampa to take on South Florida (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Saturday.
"I think other backs will go down to protect themselves but I don't really look at it like that," said Wilder, who has 41 carries for 285 yards and a team-high six touchdowns this season. "I look at it as trying to get the most yards as I can get in each play, each carry, whoever is on me or what-not. I think that's something that's special with me as a running back, to have the determination to get to the endzone."
Earning his spot in Florida State's running back rotation has taken determination, too. Widely considered the top prep defensive prospect in the Class of 2011, many criticized Wilder's desire to shun linebacker for running back in college. Then came a struggle with the playbook that hampered his playing time as a freshman last season - cueing rumors of a forced move to defense - followed by two off-field arrests that held him out most of the spring and put his depth chart positioning in jeopardy.
But through all of that, here's Wilder, now leading the 'Noles in carries (41), touchdowns (6) and ranking second in rushing yards (285) behind the starter and speedy changeup Chris Thompson.
"If I was on the other team, I wouldn't want to tackle (Wilder)," FSU fullback Lonnie Pryor said. "He's a big, physical guy. He's strong, and I think he's guaranteed four or five yards every time he touches the ball. He's going to be a great player."
Opting to run
The run starts as routine. Wilder dismisses an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, then find 10 yards of clear before meeting three defenders head on. All three make contact and fall backwards like a grenade was airborne. Wilder spins, breaks another tackle, collects his balance and runs the remaining 25 yards for a touchdown.
That run from the 2009 Florida Class 5A state championship game opened the nation's eyes to Wilder the Runner. Evidence of the 42-yard wreckage became an Internet sensation - YouTube hits on the play are in the hundreds of thousands - and it also showed what kind of strength Wilder could bring to an offense.
His problem? He was too good on defense.
The Rolodex of major college programs that contacted Wilder longed for the intimidating defender who racked up 363 tackles and 42 sacks in his final three prep seasons. In his junior and senior years at Plant, he played a "Panther Back" position - some linebacker, some defensive end - and the mission was simple. Find the football and stop the guy with it. He excelled.
"He was a better linebacker, there's no question about it," said Plant head coach Robert Weiner. "He was the single most destructive force on defense that I've ever been around in high school football. But I always think with kids, they do better doing things they have passion for doing."
Wilder, who was ranked the No. 11 overall player in the 2011 Class by Rivals.com, wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and tote the football. The elder James Wilder ran at 6-foot-3, and 225 pounds before that build was NFL commonplace, rushing for 6,008 yards and 37 touchdowns in 10 pro seasons. He still stands as the all-time leading rusher in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. The younger Wilder also enjoyed the idea of his effort on offense having more weight in the outcome of a game.
"My dad always told me that if you want to be a running back, don't let anyone tell you that you can't be a running back," said Wilder Jr. "He told me that they told him he couldn't be a running back and things worked out great for him.
"I was never a type of guy that looks at size. If you're a great player, you're a great player."
The production came offensively, almost matching his defensive prowess. He ran for more than 2,600 yards in two seasons as Plant's running back, helping the Panthers to a state title. The tenacious 42-yard run turned out to be the game winner.
"As a running back, he's not Reggie Bush, he doesn't have 4.3 speed but every guy brings different qualities to the table," Weiner said. "He brings a powerful package when it's time for him to carry the ball. He can deliver the blow. He can run past any defensive lineman and most linebackers. He has the most devastating stiff arm of anyone we've ever watched."
The strength was obvious, but considering what they'd be missing on defense, some college programs hesitated. There was power to be sure, but it was packaged in a stiff, upright runner with tight hips. Other schools flippantly offered a chance to earn a spot in their backfield, disingenuous to the thought of anything but linebacker. Florida State was different.
"I think he felt that when FSU actually told him that (he could play running back), he felt the sincerity in that they actually meant it," Weiner said. (Wilder) said that's what he wanted to play, (Fisher) said that's where'd they'd play him. Other schools told him that they would do that, but it didn't really sound like the same commitment."
Fisher, already known for utilizing larger ballcarriers in his time as the offensive coordinator at LSU, was adamant about using Wilder in the offensive backfield, saying "I thought he was a running back the whole way."
"Go watch his (high school) games," Fisher said. "Every run used to be a three-yard run that became a five-yard run. You watch the film, the guy dominated as a running back."
Wilder was sold on Fisher's big-back mentality and the proven track record of running backs coach Eddie Gran, who coached former NFL first-round draft picks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams in the same position at Auburn.
"Mixing those two together, Coach Fisher loving to run the ball and Coach Gran knowing how to make the running backs better to get to the next level I think it was just perfect," Wilder said.
With Florida State's eventual 62-10 win over Charleston Southern well in hand, Wilder broke free and rumbled down the FSU sideline for 41 yards as time expired. If the play had mattered it wouldn't have counted; FSU was penalized for holding but CSU declined it to end the night.
That would go down as Wilder's highlight last season, his longest run in an otherwise disappointing freshman campaign given the five-star hype coming into 2011. Even as Thompson broke his back five games into the season, Wilder would only run the ball 25 more times in the Seminoles' final 10 games, totaling 160 yards and one touchdown. Fellow freshman Devonta Freeman would handle the load and lead the team in rushing in 2011.
Wilder knows his lack of work came from a lack of understanding.
"It just took a year," he said. "There was nobody to blame really last year, I had playbook issues, I had trouble learning the playbook and learning the system."
Then, opportunity knocked in the spring with Thompson still ailing and Freeman out with his own back injury, leaving Wilder and two other scholarship tailbacks healthy. Wilder foiled that chance when he was arrested in February for felony assault, a charge that kept him from participating in spring drills. He would reach a plea deal and April that would allow him back for the final week of spring practice.
Wilder found trouble again in June when he was arrested for a violation of his probation. He would serve 10 days in Leon County Jail, missing more voluntary workout time with his teammates, further narrowing his chance of working into the mix at running back.
To combat the lost time, Wilder got in shape on his own and poured over the playbook. He'd get the team's practice script to go through the same individual work he would have seen if he were there. He worked out every day during his time in jail.
He was reinstated to the team at the start of fall camp in August.
"I wouldn't take back one practice (this fall)," Wilder said. "I always go out there and work hard every practice and make sure I have fun every practice. I know what it felt like at a time when my teammates were out there practicing and (even with) how bad I wanted to be out there I couldn't. And I know what it felt like for it to be taken away from me and I just don't want to have that feeling again."
The thought of moving to defense crossed his mind, especially if another year of fourth-string offensive duty was on the horizon. Wilder was willing to move, but it was a tough pill to swallow considering the criticism of his decision to play offense two years earlier.
"I always had in my mind that if I was playing running back and if it didn't work out, like this year, if I was in the same situation where I just couldn't get that playbook to click on the offensive side of the ball, I was always kept in mind that if it helped out the team for me to be a star linebacker instead of a fourth-string or third-string running back, I'm a team-first type guy, I would definitely go to linebacker to help the team out."
But with a strong fall camp, it would never come to that. He came back in shape and impressed Fisher with his abilities.
"(I was pleased) in his conditioning. He's done a real nice job of studying his play book and getting on top of things and being a dependable guy," Fisher said.
Back and bruising the opposition
You see the guy rumble and wonder how he does it.
In the fourth quarter of Saturday's win over Clemson, Wilder busts through the hole before Clemson player tries to take out his legs. Wilder keeps his balance and withstands another blow on his right side. He continues, extending his right hand out and stiff-arming defender No. 3. Three more players corral Wilder, but need eight yards and the help of two latecomers to get him down. All told, six defenders hit Wilder on the play. One tried twice. It went for 35 yards and led to a crucial touchdown.
The play loosened more chinstraps and unglued yet another chunk of morale.
Wilder feels comfortable with the playbook. He more patient, too, reading blocks and trusting that the hole scheduled to open will open by the time he has the rock.
"I can actually run full speed instead of running like a chicken with his head cut off just trying to get to the end zone," he said.
It shows statistically: In 41 carries this season, Wilder has only one negative run. Twenty-four of those runs went for at least five yards. The understanding and production has made Wilder into a key cog of FSU's three-back rotation with Thompson and Freeman.
"I'm proud of what he's become," said Thompson, who leads the 'Noles with 357 rushing yards. "Just to see where he's come - because he has come a long way - at times, honestly he'll go in (the game) and in the back of my mind it's like 'Will he know this?' But now there's no doubt in my mind that he knows everything when it comes down to it and he's matured pretty quick.
"I'm so proud of him and he's doing really, really good things out there and I just love to see him run the ball. I'm so glad that he's getting more playing time and being able to showcase his talent."
The man who almost played linebacker, the man who almost missed his chance at carries thanks to the playbook and off-field trouble, is now becoming the Seminoles' closer. The fourth quarter has been his time to come in, know his play, wait for his blocks, gash a tiring defense and maybe throw one of those devastating stiff arms out.
And if all goes well, he'll get to hear those words of submission again.
I'm tired of hitting No. 32.
Video courtesy of Warchant.com's Paul Thomas. Thomas also contributed to this report.