Becoming a leader

FSU running back James Wilder Jr. is showing growth on and off the field

Updated: April 1, 2013, 8:54 AM ET
By David M. Hale | NoleNation

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."

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireSeminoles running back James Wilder Jr. ran for 635 yards and caught 19 passes for 136 yards as a sophomore.
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.

"Those were the leaders, and they took us under their wings," Wilder said. "We're trying to take that role because when leaders leave, somebody has to step up and fill in those shoes."

That has meant being more vocal during practice and keeping tabs on his younger teammates. A year ago, Wilder was the unproven commodity, but now he's looked to for advice.

"He's been in the system three years, he feels a lot more comfortable, and he's able to coach me up on things I didn't know," redshirt freshman Mario Pender said.

Wilder's comfort in the role might be part of his evolution, but the past two seasons have groomed him for the job.

When Pender sulked following a groin injury that sidelined him in 2012, Wilder became a constant voice in the freshman's ear, pushing him to rehab and return quickly. When Thompson went down with a season-ending knee injury in October, it was Wilder who suggested the rest of the backfield scribble their fallen teammate's number on their tape on game days as motivation to ensure the ground game delivered the same stellar results.

Even those off-field issues that sidetracked Wilder a year ago proved a worthy lesson for a leader.

"It makes you grow," Jimbo Fisher said. "When you deal with adversity and you realize things can be taken away from you -- some things you take for granted, but that's part of growing up. We all have to make mistakes. We learn from them and we move on from them."

What Wilder has learned is that the adversity only brings the goal into focus, and the criticism only pushes him to keep moving. He'll never erase all doubts, but he's hoping another step forward in 2013 makes the critics' job even tougher.

"You don't hear people say I'm a sorry running back anymore," he laughed. "So I must be doing something right."