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Wilder looking for redemption

8/12/2012
AP Photo/Don Juan Moore

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Nine days in jail gave James Wilder Jr. time to think.

There was no family, no friends and, for the second time in four months, there was no football.

For Wilder, this was the harshest punishment. The game is in his DNA. His father played in the NFL. His high school career was littered with accolades.

And for the majority of this offseason, it was gone.

"I know what it feels like to be out of football, and I don't want to have that feeling ever again," Wilder said. "It's the worst feeling ever."

This is the lesson Jimbo Fisher wanted to reinforce when he met with Wilder this summer. It's the lesson the sophomore running back has taken with him onto the field each day since camp opened last week.

It feels good to be on a football field again, to have the chance to repair the damage he's done to his reputation during the past year.

Wilder is no longer one of the top prospects in the country. After a mediocre debut and a troubled offseason, he's simply a third-string running back with a history of off-field problems, and he doesn't like that reputation at all.

"I had a lot of people saying this and that, people back home," Wilder said. "I view it as motivation. I have a lot to prove this year. Coming to college, I didn't prove anything my freshman year."

Despite Florida State's depleted backfield last season, Wilder saw only limited action, getting 35 carries for the season, just nine coming after Nov. 1.

Wilder's impact could have been greater. He knows this and shoulders the blame.

He had expectations for himself as a freshman, but simply didn't realize what it took to meet them.

"The (results) didn't come close to (the expectations), but it's nobody's fault but mine," Wilder said. "I didn't know the playbook that much, I didn't study the way I should."

Instead, fellow freshman Devonta Freeman settled into a starting role, and by season’s end Wilder was little more than a change-of-pace option on the depth chart.

This spring, Wilder might have been able to improve his position, but again, he fumbled away the opportunity.

He was arrested in February after an altercation with a police officer. While Freeman and veteran Chris Thompson were nursing injuries, the door was opened for another running back to step up this spring. Instead, Wilder was sidelined for nearly the entirety of spring practice because of his legal problems.

Just as summer workouts were set to begin, Wilder found himself in trouble with the law again. A failed breathalyzer test before a court-ordered work-camp day resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Again Wilder was back in court, back in jail and away from the football field.

"Sitting there and thinking about my teammates out there working hard every day," Wilder said. "Sometimes people complain that we have a two-a-day, but to be able to do that is so much better than being away from the team."

In early July, Fisher met with Wilder and offered a reminder.

There would be in-house punishments, but there was no suspension looming. Wilder had missed enough football, but Fisher was quick to note that there would be little room for further missteps.

If Wilder wanted to be a part of the Florida State football team, he had to clean up his act.

"The mistakes off the field, I have to cut that out," Wilder said. "I want to just be back on the field with my team."

The bulk of Wilder's reps have come with the third-team offense, a slot on the depth chart he owes largely to his own indiscretions.

Still, Wilder isn't lamenting his position. He views the starting job as an open competition with Freeman and Thompson, and given his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame, he believes he has a shot at a big role in the Florida State offense this year.

"We're competing, we're all competing for a spot to make each other better," Wilder said. "But we're not competing and looking at each other as enemies. It's coach's choice as to who we can depend on the most, but we're going to all go out there and compete."

And that's another difference for Wilder thus far. He's not simply waiting on the periphery of the competition. When he walks onto the practice field, he's ready to play.

"My freshman year, I was a long way away with the playbook," Wilder said. "I didn't know it at all. I know it now, I'm comfortable with it. I've got it down pat."

Wilder calls his offseason one of setbacks. It's a politically savvy moniker that fails to underscore the salaciousness of the incidents, but it's also the only way he can move forward.

Wilder has learned his lessons the hard way thus far, but it's given him the chance to look into the future and envision a life without football.

It's an empty place, he admits, but it's an important reminder.

"For me, to bounce back from that, it's made me do better," Wilder said. "It gave me an eye opener to just be able to play with the team."