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Running Back Over Linebacker? Not a Wild Idea

Sept. 26, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Close your eyes and imagine the prototypical running back. 

Is he strong enough to make plays after getting hit? Is he big enough to move the chains between the tackles but also quick enough to bounce it outside and beat defenses with his legs? Does he have good enough hands to catch the ball out of the backfield and hold onto it when defenders are trying to punch it from his grasp? Does he know his blocking assignments and responsibilities in pass protection?

Brandon Mellor
Brandon Mellor
Seminoles.com Managing Editor
bmellor@fsu.edu
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Now for fun, imagine a prototypical linebacker. Think of all criterion that makes a player in that position great -- from size and speed to tenacity and instincts and everything in between.

Now open your eyes. 

Couldn't Florida State sophomore James Wilder, Jr. fit either one of those molds?

A former five-star prospect and dominant player on both offense and defense as a prep star at Tampa's Plant High School, Wilder, Jr. had scholarships offers from the top programs across the country. But many of those written offers for full rides came with a provision: lots of college coaches wanted Wilder, Jr. as a linebacker.

Many recruitniks and fans felt the same way. A 6-foot-2, 230-pound athlete with an upright running stance was more suited for the defensive side of the ball.

"A lot of people said I was going to be a linebacker," Wilder, Jr. said this week. "I was too big and hips too tight."

Despite the skepticism, Wilder, Jr. didn't let that stand in the way of his dream to be just like his father, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star in the 1980s and still the franchise's all-time record holder in both receptions and rushes.

He was also drawn to the power of being an offensive player.

"When you actually have the the ball in your hand you control the game," Wilder, Jr. said. "You control if your team scores or protecting the quarterback you just determine the game when you actually have the ball in your hands and I just wanted to be able to play that role on the team."

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher envisioned the same role.

"Go watch his [high school] games," Fisher said. "Every run that was supposed to be a three-yard run was a five-yard run. He can bend. He has great hands. He has good lower-body flexibility. Everybody said because he ran high. But he can bend. He didn't run high because he was stiff. He can bend [and] he can drop his weight. He has good vision.

"That's why he'd be a good linebacker," Fisher added. "You can't tell me a guy can tackle in space but can't run in space. Now, tackling in space is more difficult than running in space. So I never understood that analogy."

Wilder, Jr. ultimately signed with the Seminoles as part of the 2011 class because of Fisher's desire to use him as a running back and assistant coach Eddie Gran's track record of producing NFL runners like Ronnie Brown, Deuce McAllister and Cadillac Williams to name a few.

But after a freshman year that saw him struggle to learn the playbook and average a little more than 13 yards rushing per game as a seldom-used reserve, the thought that he might be better suited to play defense in college began creeping into Wilder, Jr.'s mind. He even went so far as to tell himself that a switch would be in order if his sophomore season played out like that of his rookie campaign.


A familiar siight so far in 2012: James Wilder, Jr. celebrating another touchdown run.


"I always kept in mind if it would help out the team for me to be a starting linebacker instead of a fourth-string or third-string running back," he said. "I'm a team-first type of guy. I'd definitely go over to linebacker to help the team out."

Four games into his second season as a Seminole and it's pretty clear such a move won't be necessary.

After rushing for just 161 yards and one score in 12 games in 2011, Wilder, Jr. already has 285 yards on the ground and six touchdowns through the first third of the 2012 season. Whether it's picking up a key block and helping keep quarterback EJ Manuel off the turf or carrying a handful of Clemson Tigers on his back down the field, Wilder, Jr.' hasn't just looked like his high-school self but better.

The player that many viewed as a tailback running from the idea of playing linebacker is now just a tailback running over linebackers.

What changed?

"It just took a year," Wilder, Jr. said. "Like I always say, there was nobody to blame last year. I had playbook issues. I had trouble learning the playbook and the system and stuff. Now that I've learned the system I can play faster. I've adapted to the game; I know the speed of the game now so it's all made it easier for me."

That progression and hard work to turn himself into an impact player on offense hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I am so proud of him and he's doing really, really good things out there," said Chris Thompson, FSU's starting tailback and the other half of what has become a 'thunder and lightning' type of dynamic in the 'Noles' backfield. "I just love to see him run the ball. I'm so glad that he's getting more playing time and being able to showcase his talent."

And who knows, maybe that talent would be making a similar impact at linebacker had Wilder, Jr. elected to follow that path. 

But that wasn't the direction he chose. He wanted to be like his dad, making moves on offense and updating scoreboards -- no matter what people said. 

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

A few games into his sophomore season and it seems like Wilder, Jr. -- the guy that many said should stick to playing linebacker -- looks to be on the same track that saw his dad become a star Missouri and second-round NFL Draft selection.

You don't have to close your eyes to imagine that.

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