Wilder steps into leadership role for Noles

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It's not that James Wilder Jr. is holding a grudge. If anything, he's appreciative of all those fans and scouts and coaches who insisted he wasn't cut out to play running back. They've motivated him.

But after one of last week's practice sessions, Wilder couldn't help but indulge in a long-awaited "I told you so" moment, taking to Twitter to note how quiet those same critics seem to be these days.

"What happened to all those people who said I couldn't play running back?" he tweeted. "I don't hear from them anymore."

That's not entirely true, Wilder admits. He still hears from them from time to time, though the message is offered a bit more politely these days. Instead of suggesting he's not a running back, they simply lament that he might have been a better linebacker.

The politeness eases the sting a bit, but he's still on a mission to quiet all the doubters.

"I'm not great yet," Wilder said. "But I'm working on that."

That's what this spring is about for the junior tailback whom so many believed was too big, too tall and too stiff to play the position. After two years of incremental improvement, culminating with last season's 13-touchdown effort, Wilder has moved past the point of proving he belongs. Instead, he's interested to see how much further he can go, and that begins with simply being on the field.

A year ago, Wilder's spring was limited to a single practice. He'd spent the bulk of the spring navigating legal problems that followed a conviction on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest without violence. He returned to the field just in time to play in Florida State's spring game, but it was clear he'd missed a lot.

"I was out of shape and horrible," Wilder said.

It was a learning experience.

Wilder managed to work his way back into the team's good graces, and by September was a significant part of the Seminoles' ground game. Wilder finished the year with 771 yards of total offense, placing fifth in the ACC in yards per carry and third in rushing touchdowns while sharing time in a crowded Florida State backfield.

He figures to split carries again this season, but the dynamics of that crowded backfield have shifted considerably. Gone is Chris Thompson, the speedy senior tailback, and Lonnie Pryor, the versatile and vocal fullback. EJ Manuel has moved on, too, leaving a four-way battle at quarterback in his absence.

All that transition has put the focus squarely on Wilder and fellow tailback Devonta Freeman to carry the load -- not just in terms of offensive production, but leadership, too. It's a role Wilder has embraced.

To read more of David M. Hale's story, click here.