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Tampa's Wilder running with his chance at FSU

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 02:21 PM
TALLAHASSEE -

He's coming home. Florida State University sophomore running back James Wilder Jr., the former Plant High star, is older, wiser and maybe a bit more wary.

"I have been humbled,'' Wilder said. "I don't want that feeling ever again. So whatever opportunities I get, I'm going to run with them.''

And along the way, Wilder will flatten anything in his path. That hasn't changed.

The No. 4-ranked Seminoles (4-0), who make their first Tampa trip since 1979 and face the University of South Florida Bulls (2-2) on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, have learned to appreciate the contributions of Wilder.

"He looks like a superhero or Superman out there,'' FSU offensive coordinator James Coley said. "If he's running a screen down the sideline, what cornerback wants a piece of that? You know what I mean?''

"What offensive lineman wouldn't like James?'' FSU sophomore left tackle Cameron Erving said. "He's one of those guys you love blocking for because he'll hit the hole, he'll move the pile and he'll bounce it outside for a big run. You go to battle with guys like that.''

Wilder (6-foot-2, 226 pounds) already has surpassed the production of his entire freshman season. He has 41 carries (the most of any FSU back) for 285 yards, a 7.0-yard average, and a team-leading six touchdowns. He works in tandem with electrifying runners Chris Thompson and Devonta Freeman, showing particular proficiency in third-down and goal-line situations.

"That's a great group and Wilder is really tough to bring down,'' USF coach Skip Holtz said.

It looks similar to Wilder's days at Plant, where he helped the Panthers to the Class 5A state title in 2009 and the championship game in 2010. Wilder, who rushed for 2,604 yards and 37 touchdowns with the Panthers while also registered 27 sacks on defense, was the Tampa Tribune's Hillsborough County prep football player of the year as a junior.

The Seminoles won the services of Wilder, a five-star recruit, and big things were immediately expected. But they never happened.

Wilder rushed for 160 yards on just 35 carries as a freshman. And he was definitely needed. FSU rushed for just 112.1 yards per game, ranking 104th (out of 120) nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"I didn't know the playbook,'' Wilder said. "I couldn't play as fast. I couldn't be me. I fell behind and I never caught up. It was my fault.''

Things got worse in the offseason. In February, Wilder was charged with obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence and battery on a law enforcement officer during the arrest of his girlfriend. While on probation in June, Wilder reported for work camp and a Breathalyzer recorded an .01 blood alcohol content, which was considered a violation of his probation.

Wilder spent 10 days in the Leon County Jail before rejoining the team.

"When I got in trouble the first time, I couldn't do football and had to come back to Tampa,'' Wilder said. "Everybody was like, 'What are you doing here? Aren't they back in Tallahassee practicing?' It was terrible. I don't want to do anything selfish like that again to hurt the team.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who look at me and think, 'Bad guy,' but I have to concentrate on my family, my teammates, my coaches. I stood before the team (in the summer) and asked if everyone could accept me and forgive my mistakes. I felt their support. Now I want to give them my all.''

So far, so good.

The Seminoles are averaging 281 yards rushing, good for eighth nationally, a massive improvement over last season.

"You always saw the ability and now you see how much it means to James,'' Thompson said. "He's trying to learn. He's listening. Get him in the open field and it's frightening. James is a man.''


jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353 Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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