Thursday, May 16, 2013
Under Pressure: RB James Wilder Jr.
By David M. Hale
Each season brings with it new expectations, and a handful of Seminoles will bear the brunt of the pressure to perform in 2013. We're counting down the top 10 FSU players being counted on the most to help the Seminoles live up to expectations.
James Wilder Jr. was the MVP of the ACC championship game.
2012 performance: Wilder rebounded nicely from a slew of off-field distractions to become a consistent producer in FSU's backfield. He topped 100 yards in his first game of the season and finished as perhaps the Seminoles' most consistent performer in the backfield, rushing for 635 yards and 11 touchdowns and hauling in 19 catches for 136 yards and two TDs.
Pressure point: Wilder finally quieted the critics who thought he wasn't suited for offense, but there's still plenty more to accomplish, and the weight of this year's offense rests largely on his shoulders -- both on and off the field. Wilder still figures to split carries with Devonta Freeman, but with a first-year starter at quarterback, there's likely to be a major emphasis on running the ball successfully. Moreover, Wilder has quickly embraced the role of vocal leader on offense, and he'll need to show he's matured beyond the off-field problems that dogged the early part of his career.
If he succeeds: Life gets a lot easier for Jameis Winston (or whoever wins the QB job) if the running game is producing, and Jimbo Fisher figures to put the onus for that on Wilder and Freeman in the early going. Fisher has raved about Wilder's ability -- not just to run between the tackles but to get outside for big runs, pick up blitzes and work as a receiver out of the backfield. He arrived at FSU as a five-star prospect and he hasn't quite reached that potential yet -- but there's ample reason for optimism. While FSU will need its new quarterback to rise to the occasion from time to time, Wilder can do a lot to minimize the occasions on which the game falls entirely on the QB's shoulders.
If he fails: Wilder and Freeman enjoyed relative success in 2012 even after Chris Thompson's season ended abruptly, but there were some troubling games, too -- such as the debacle at Virginia Tech. The Hokies stacked the box and rendered FSU's ground game completely ineffective, and with an offseason of film study and a new QB running the show, odds are more defenses will take a similar approach this year. The onus for overcoming that will likely fall to Wilder, who embraces the opportunity to get the hard-earned yards through contact. If he can't do it -- or if the pounding takes its toll on his body -- the rest of FSU's backfield lacks anything close to that same physicality or blocking ability, and Fisher's options would be far more limited.
Projection: It's tough to predict a 1,000-yard type of season for Wilder because he'll likely share the workload with Freeman and, of course, no FSU runner has reached that mark in nearly two decades. Still, Wilder has an NFL skill set and he'll get his chance to show he's on that path. Staying healthy will be a big key -- he was bruised and battered throughout 2012 and missed this year's spring game -- and he'll need to show he's more versatile outside the tackles. If Wilder can do both, he should easily exceed last year's totals, be FSU's best red-zone threat and, with a little luck, he might even be able to finally put an end to that inexplicably long drought of 1,000-yard runners.