As the No. 7 Florida State Seminoles look to turn a weakness into a strength this season, there will be plenty of scrutiny on the revamped offensive line as well as running backs Chris Thompson and Devonta Freeman.
However, by season’s end, the most important player in the Seminoles’ ground attack might be James Wilder Jr.
“I think we have more diversity with our running game [this year],” coach Jimbo Fisher said Saturday night after the Seminoles’ 69-3 victory over Murray State.
“We’ve got different kinds of backs that all bring something different to the table.”
In the Seminoles’ season-opening rout of the Racers, that diversity was on full display.
While five backs combined for 285 yards and seven touchdowns, it was Wilder who carried the load for most of the second half, barreling through defenders and gaining 106 yards on 12 carries. He also added a couple scores.
It was good enough for his first career game ball.
“They just gave me player of the game and the game ball,” Wilder said on Saturday night, the ball still cradled under his arm. “It means a lot to me to get a 100-yard game. It is something I always dreamed of as a kid.”
Wilder admitted he intended to sleep with the ball that night, underscoring the sophomore’s excitement over his first 100-yard game.
Growing up in Tampa, Wilder heard his share of tales about his father's 100-yard performances over a 10-year NFL career, mostly with the Buccaneers.
Now Wilder and Florida State are hoping he follows closely in his father’s footsteps this season, especially considering the impact he could have on the team’s run game.
It was just one night against an FCS school, but Wilder looked in midseason form on Saturday.
“When he first stepped out on the field I was like ‘look it’s on you,’” said senior tailback Chris Thompson. “You weigh 230, they can’t hit you.’
“I was like that is the mind-set that you have to go out there with and it pretty much showed as everyone could see tonight. I am real happy for him and glad that the coaches kept giving him the ball, kept letting him pound because that is one thing that will help us out later on in the season.”
Thompson and Freeman share similar body types: both are shorter than 5-10 with good burst and a low center of gravity. Freeman trends a bit more towards contact while Thompson is a bit flashier, but Wilder couldn’t be much more different.
At 6-2, 230-pounds, Wilder is a battering ram. The former Tampa Plant High standout was recruited by most schools as a linebacker.
He came to FSU because the Seminoles promised to let him run the ball and now in his sophomore season, he appears ready to come into his own.
“Once I get past the D-line I’m the same size as the linebackers anyways, if I get past the linebackers I’m way bigger than the safeties,” Wilder said. “And that’s just a great look, I can see the end zone from there.”
The Seminoles hope that’s a look Wilder gets often in 2012.