Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 8/24/12
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. There are no questions about the wealth of talent that Florida State has at running back. The concerns revolve around their health. Senior Chris Thompson hurt his back just five games into the 2011 season, and he missed Thursdays scrimmage with a hamstring injury. And Devonta Freeman missed the spring with a back injury. James Wilder Jr. has even practiced through a minor shoulder strain this preseason. FSU also planned to use true freshman Mario Pender this fall, but he will be sidelined for the season after having groin surgery. The Seminoles ran for 2,400 yards in 2010, but they struggled on the ground last year and produced just 1,458 yards. FSUs 112.1 rushing yards per game ranked 104th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. There were two factors for the drop-off: Thompson was lost for the season on Oct. 8, and the offensive line lost a number of veteran players to injury. All signs point to improvement in 2012. Thompson and Freeman say their backs feel 100 percent, and Wilder said his shoulder injury isnt serious. Many programs lean on a featured running back or alternate two rushers. FSU will likely use Thompson, Freeman, Wilder and even fullback Lonnie Pryor, whom coaches asked to slim down in the offseason and should see more carries. And thats the bonus of rotating so many running backs they will have plenty in the tank late in the game when the opportunity is there to wear down defenses. With two or three backs playing, it keeps all of us fresh, Freeman said. In high school, I carried the ball 28 times or better a game. But now we have three guys who split the carries, all of us get at least 10 carries apiece. One makes a big run, the other one goes in, he makes a big run. We just wear and tear the defense down. Freeman was leaned on heavily in 2011, leading the team with 579 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. He went into the year not knowing how much he would carry the ball, but enrolling in January 2011 gave him a jump on adjusting to college life and learning enough of the playbook to get by. It was a surprise, Freeman said. I didnt really know the whole offense. I didnt know the game. I had to adjust. It was kind of shocking to me, but as the season went on it became more comfortable for me. Freeman made defenses look uncomfortable trying to wrap up the 5-foot-9, 210-pound running back. And after Thompson suffered a back injury at Wake Forest, Freeman was called on even more. He had back-to-back 100-yard games in October wins over Duke and Maryland and added two touchdowns in a rout of Boston College. Freeman also had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs against Florida, both of which were set up by interception returns deep into the Gators end. He said he hurt his back when he was hit the wrong way in the Florida game but that he also thinks it was also the accumulation of a seasons worth of hits. He did not need surgery but thanked FSUs training staff for helping in his rehabilitation. It was just a lot of banging and soreness; it added up, Freeman said. When I first hurt my back, it was painful. I couldnt really move. But now I feel 100 percent. Im running faster. I got bigger and stronger. Im just moving downhill. Thompson is also recovering well from his back injury. He has displayed that same burst as in 2010, when he led the Seminoles with 845 rushing yards and had three touchdown runs of 70 or more yards. I feel better than my old self, to be honest, Thompson said. This offseason really helped me out a whole lot. This year has been a rough year for me but now I can really say that Im feeling great. Thompsons recovery has been embraced by teammates who encouraged him through the tough times to keep his head up and rehabilitate so that he could finish his senior year strong. Running backs coach Eddie Gran said Thompson also sets an example for younger players like Freeman and Wilder. Chris does everything right, Gran said. Its really good to have him back. Chris is not a guy that is going to take a day off. He looks really good right now. Wilder Jr., the son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back James Wilder, now has a stronger grasp of the playbook than he did as a freshman. He ran for 4.6 yards per carry in 2011 but admitted that he didnt study the playbook as much as he should and has changed that going into his sophomore season. For me it was pretty hard, coming out of high school, Wilder said. I came here with big expectations, and didnt really admit but it was my fault playbook issues. I knew the playbook, but I wasnt quite comfortable. He also had a difficult offseason. Wilder was arrested in February for obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence and battery on a law enforcement officer during an arrest of his girlfriend. His attorney reached a plea deal in April. And, while on probation in June, Wilder reported for work camp and a breathalyzer recorded a .01 blood alcohol content. It was well below the legal limit of .08, and likely would not be admissible in court. But the court considered any alcohol consumption to be a violation of his probation. After Wilder spent 10 days in the Leon County Jail, he rejoined the team. But first he faced them and apologized. I got into trouble not once, but twice. I had two strikes against me, Wilder said. I looked into everybodys eyes and everybodys faces, and I said, Do you all accept me? Are you going to hold this against me? " Wilder was remorseful. He apologized to his teammates, players he calls brothers. The response was unanimous. They all supported me, Wilder said. The support is strong among the running backs. Where fans and reporters may think that there is heated competition, its instead a group of friends who push each other to improve each week and deliver the most out of every carry on Saturdays. There will be questions about FSUs running game throughout the season. The durability of the backs, even with carries split among the group, will be a concern. So will the continued growth of the offensive line, which could start three sophomores. But Gran feels that the running backs are healthy again, and that an extra year of experience for Freeman and Wilder will go a long way. That whole segment group right now, I cant be more pleased with their effort, Gran said. We have to get better technique-wise and get better with the details, but if we continue where we are right now, they are going to be good enough to go out and try and win a championship.
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