Wilder excited for homecoming

Trip to Tampa brings big Florida State running back back to his roots

Updated: September 27, 2012, 10:40 PM ET
By David M. Hale | NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The ticket drive began weeks ago. Each Florida State player gets four complimentary passes per game for friends and family, but James Wilder Jr. was going to need a lot more. For the Seminoles, Saturday marks their first road trip of the season, but for Wilder, it's a homecoming.

Raymond James Stadium -- home turf for USF, but less than a mile from the house where Wilder grew up -- will have its share of Florida State fans Saturday, but no one will be bringing a bigger entourage than the hulking sophomore tailback who is eager to show how far he has come.

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJames Wilder Jr. had 65 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries against Clemson.
All week, Wilder has gotten texts and Facebook messages from long-forgotten classmates hoping to catch the return of the local four-star prospect who's finally making good on his wealth of potential.

"I've gotten a couple 'Remember me?' messages," Wilder said, "but I expected it."

The homecoming has been circled on Wilder's calendar for a while, so he anticipated the onslaught of requests. What he didn't know until recently, however, was whether he'd be returning to Tampa as a conquering hero or a prodigal son, a player who'd proved the critics wrong or one who had foolishly ignored the sage advice of so many coaches and scouts.

Three years ago, Wilder was a star at Plant High School, running over tacklers as a tailback and dispensing massive hits as a linebacker.

His impressive size -- 6-foot-2, 230 pounds -- made him a prized commodity on the recruiting trail, but the vast majority of coaches around the country wanted him to play defense. They had ample reason to assume he'd have a future as an NFL linebacker.

"He's probably the most destructive force on defense that I've seen in high school," said Robert Weiner, Wilder's coach at Plant.

Wilder admits he was well suited to the position, and while he tallied his share of impressive runs during his high school years it was at linebacker that he truly excelled.

But as coaches looked at Wilder's impressive frame, his upright running style and his appreciation for contact, and drooled over his potential on defense, his heart was always on the offensive side of the field.

"It's just more fun to be able to run the ball," Wilder said. "When you have the ball in your hands, you control the game. I just wanted to play that role on the team."

Perhaps it's genetics. Wilder's father, James Sr., was a star running back at Missouri and went on to a successful NFL career in which he tallied more than 6,000 rushing yards and retired as one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most beloved players.

Like his son, Wilder Sr. was big -- 6-3, 225 pounds -- and far from the prototype for a running back. But he was the template for what Wilder Jr. hoped to become.

"My dad always told me, 'If you want to be a running back, don't ever let them tell you you can't,' " the younger Wilder said. "He told me they told him he couldn't be a running back, and things worked out great for him."

Plenty of coaches assured Wilder he'd get a chance to play tailback in college if that's what he wanted, but their sincerity was a constant concern. It was easy to tell a recruit what he wanted to hear, but once he arrived on campus he needed to know he'd get a fair shot. That's what set Florida State apart.

When Wilder met Jimbo Fisher, the FSU coach raved about the big running backs he'd coached in the past and assured Wilder he was just the kind of runner the Seminoles needed. Running backs coach Eddie Gran had a sterling track record of getting his players to the NFL, and where other coaches saw flaws, Fisher saw opportunity.

"He can bend, he has great hands, he has good lower-body flexibility," Fisher said. "You always say he looks like a linebacker, and he runs too upright and all that, but he ran upright because he wants to. If he wants to drop that shoulder and drop that weight, he can do that."

When Wilder arrived at Florida State, his physical ability was never questioned. The mental side of the game, however, quickly became a concern.

He earned mop-up duty against FCS foe Charleston Southern in the second week of his freshman season, but he didn't get another offensive touch until October. When he did see action, Wilder ran with the same brute strength that had made him a force at Plant, but he had trouble following blocks or finding running lanes. By season's end, he was an afterthought in a backfield bereft of healthy runners, getting just nine carries in Florida State's final five games of the season.

"There was nobody to blame," Wilder said. "I had playbook issues. I had trouble learning the playbook, learning the system."

The offseason provided little opportunity to work out the kinks, but it offered plenty of time to think.

Wilder was arrested in February on felony battery charges, missed the bulk of spring practice, pled to a misdemeanor and was arrested again for violation of his probation in June. The latter arrest came with nine days in jail, and again forced Wilder out of summer workouts.

When he finally got a chance to rejoin his team, he was desperate to make things right.

"I work hard every practice and make sure I have fun," Wilder said. "I know what it felt like at a time when my teammates were out there practicing and how bad I wanted to be out there and I couldn't. It makes you realize how much you love the sport and how much you should take advantage of every practice, every minute."

Wilder impressed coaches during fall camp, but he opened the season third on the FSU depth chart. He got his first carry of the year in the second half of the Seminoles' opener against Murray State, but he finished the game with 106 yards and the game ball, which he carried with him the rest of the night.

Since then, Wilder's role has grown. He leads FSU rushers with 41 carries and six touchdowns, and he has become a powerful force alongside Chris Thompson as part of the Seminoles' thunder-and-lightning backfield.

The playbook is now second nature, and the defenses are feeling Wilder's full impact.

"He's a different breed, man," defensive tackle Everett Dawkins said. "He's not easy to bring down. There's no arm-tackling, no lunging and knocking him over. You're going to have to wrap him up and gang tackle."

In the third quarter of last week's win over Clemson, Wilder took a handoff and hit a hole up the middle. He sprinted 10 yards before the first defender made contact, but Wilder stepped over the arm tackle, then bounced away from a second defender with a spin move. A cornerback tracked him down, but Wilder brushed him aside with a stiff arm. Three more would-be tacklers piled on, but Wilder carried them another 6 yards before a second wave of Clemson defenders finally brought him down.

Within minutes, Weiner's cell phone began beeping as one message after another came in from rival coaches and former players who had seen all of this before.

"That was a week-to-week run at Plant," Weiner said.

And yet, for as many times as they'd seen it, few had been certain Wilder could do it at the college level.

It's the curse of being different. If running is an art form, Wilder does his sculpting with a battering ram. He is a bulldozer in a race stacked with sports cars.

"There are a lot of linebackers that look like him," Weiner said. "His skills for a running back -- the ball skills, the speed skills, the agility skills -- in his size body is really something unique for a running back. There's not a lot of guys like that."

The truth is even Wilder wasn't convinced. He admits that if things hadn't turned around this season it's likely he would've moved to linebacker. He would have done it for the good of the team, he said -- but his heart wouldn't have been in it.

He is where he belongs. He just had to force his way through the setbacks and distractions and the naysayers with the same reckless abandon he uses to attack the line of scrimmage.

"A lot of people telling me I couldn't just made me want to do it more," Wilder said.

Saturday, he'll have his shot to say, "I told you so." His father will be at the game, and Weiner hopes to be there, too. They won't be alone.

"Going back home," Wilder said. "This is going to be a great game to have fun."