Spring position battles: Running back

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
11:00
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It is officially time for Florida State to put its 2013 championship season behind and begin pursuit of another as spring practice is just two weeks away.

While many of the Seminoles’ top players will return to Doak Campbell Stadium this fall, graduation, early departures and transfers have left Jimbo Fisher searching for answers at a handful of positions. There is talent and depth across the board at nearly every position, but the FSU staff is hoping key replacements emerge this spring before being thrust into pivotal role this fall.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonThe big and speedy Karlos Williams (left) will have some help in the Seminoles backfield this season.
This week we look at five key position battles this spring, and Tuesday's focus is the competition at running back. The battle for the backup quarterback job was broken down Monday.

Position: Running back
Replacing: Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.
Candidates: Karlos Williams, Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook

Freeman finally broke the streak of 16 consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher at Florida State, rushing for 1,016 yards, becoming the first Florida State running back since Warrick Dunn in 1996 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Freeman promptly bolted early for the NFL just days later.

In another mild surprise, Wilder also declared for the NFL draft following his junior season. While Freeman received the bulk of the carries, Wilder was usually the one to give Freeman a chance to catch his breath on the sidelines before Williams would come in for mop-up duty in the second half. Combined, Freeman and Wilder tallied 1,579 yards and 22 touchdowns on 254 rushes.

With those two off to the NFL, along with receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, Jameis Winston could use a sound running game to alleviate the increased pressure he will certainly see from defenses. In 2013, Wilder averaged seven yards per carry and Freeman’s average was just shy of six yards. Without that solid run support, it could mean Winston and Florida State will see more second- and third-and-long situations.

Before the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back from safety, and he now looks poised to be the starting tailback for the Noles going forward. But few offensive staffs rely on just a single running back, and Fisher has never given his top running back more than 28 percent of the team’s total carries in any of his first four seasons.

Athletically, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Williams looks capable of handling the lion’s share of the carries, but Fisher will likely rely on a committee that could rotate as many as four players at the position. Redshirt sophomore Pender is back with the team after academics and injuries cost him his first two seasons. His RecruitingNation scouting report speaks glowingly of Pender, stating the 5-foot-10, 192-pound back can develop into an every-down player that can “run with patience or stick it downhill” as well as “turn the corner and take it the distance.” Few prospects boast the kind of speed Pender owns. He ran 10.61 in the 100-meter dash in high school. The eighth-ranked running back in the 2012 class, Pender is the only running back among the top 10 at the position from that cycle yet to take a snap.

The Noles have speed to burn at running back with Pender, sophomore Green and early enrollee Cook. Green was the No. 3-ranked athlete coming out of high school and was electronically timed at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. As a freshman, Green saw action in 12 games and averaged 4.9 yards per carry on his 33 attempts. He figures to see an increased role in 2014 and could backup Williams, especially if Pender fails to see the field again.

Cook, who was timed at 4.46, was No. 3 at his position in the 2014 cycle and enrolled in January following a flip from Florida. He is already on campus and can participate in spring drills. It would not be a surprise to see Cook have a significant role this coming season.

Jared Shanker

Florida State/ACC reporter

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