Draft Departures Put Florida State Backfield in Transition
Florida State proved to be as deep and dangerous as any team in the country this past season, evidenced by a 14-0 record and the program's third national title, but that depth is going to be challenged at the running back position.
First, it was junior James Wilder Jr. declaring early for the NFL draft, which wasn't much of a surprise since he had fallen to third in the backfield rotation and probably wouldn't have seen his role expanded in 2014. Still, at 6'2" and 229 pounds—plus his father was a pretty good ball-carrier in his own right—the Tampa native appears to have a future playing on Sunday as a short-yardage and goal-line specialist.
Conversely, the 'Noles were caught off guard when fellow junior Devonta Freeman, the team's leading rusher two of the last three years, also chose to skip out on his senior campaign.
While the 5'9", 203-pounder is a well-rounded tailback that can do a little bit of everything, this is not a decision in line with like-minded early entries Timmy Jernigan and Kelvin Benjamin—those two have elite skills at defensive tackle and wide receiver, respectively, and are sure to be first-round picks. According to Rob Rang and Co. at CBSSports.com, Freeman will be fortunate to hear his name called by Round 3.
Regardless of when Freeman and Wilder come off the draft board in May, FSU must develop a few fresh faces in the running game, so let's meet the candidates.
It's mystifying to look back at the beginning of September, when Williams was two full years into his collegiate career and yet still having trouble getting significant playing time on defense at the safety position.
Out of nowhere, he was switched to the offensive side of the football one game into the 2013 season, and now he's expected to be the starting tailback in 2014 for the reigning national champs. That goes to show how much raw talent Williams puts on display with the ball in his hands—his first-ever run went for a 65-yard touchdown Sept. 14 versus Nevada.
Williams finished the season with 91 carries for 730 yards and 11 TDs, with each figure topping the more experienced and well-established Wilder (81-563-8).
While Williams flourished as a change-of-pace back behind Freeman and Wilder, padding his stats to some degree in garbage time against overmatched opponents, it remains to be seen if he can be counted on for 15-20 touches per week as the primary option. He has a long way to go as a pass-catcher, plus there is a big difference between being a willing blocker—he most certainly is given his physical nature—and understanding the ins and outs of blitz pickup.
One positive is Williams won't have to come off the field in short-yardage situations, which Freeman often did in favor of Wilder and essentially telegraphed to the other team that a run up the gut was coming.
Because Florida State blew most everybody out of the building and fielded nothing but reserves in the second half more often than not, Ryan Green saw action in 12 games at running back as a true freshman.
A 5'10", 188-pounder from St. Petersburg Catholic High School, Green carried the ball 33 times for 163 yards and one touchdown. It's a small sample size, but Seminole fans can be encouraged by the fact that he also caught two passes for 16 yards and an additional score—again, he only entered the huddle in run-out-the-clock situations.
Rated a 4-star prospect at the prep level by all the major recruiting services, Green missed the majority of his senior year in high school due to a shoulder injury, but he ran for 1,069 yards and 14 TDs as a junior.
Even with Williams expected to be the workhorse in the backfield, Green has an opportunity to slide into the rotation as a third-down back and pass-catching weapon. Built in the mold of the more diminutive tailbacks that FSU has featured for a generation—Warrick Dunn, Travis Minor, Lorenzo Booker, etc.—he brings 4.4 speed to the table and a much smaller target for enemy defenders.
But coach Jimbo Fisher won't put anyone out there that may get his quarterback killed on obvious passing downs, so Green would be awfully wise to focus on his blocking assignments during spring camp.
Originally a 5-star signee and a headliner of the much-ballyhooed recruiting class of 2012, Pender might possess the most upside of any back on the roster.
The trouble is, Florida State followers have yet to see the 5'10", 192-pounder in action, as he is still yet to dress out on game day. A severe groin injury shelved Pender for the 2012 slate before it ever got started—he was initially getting reps with the first string as an early enrollee—and then this past season, he was forced to leave the team as an academic casualty.
Practicing again at the conclusion of fall semester, there were whispers around the facility that Pender couldn't be stopped ahead of the BCS National Championship as a member of the scout team.
While Williams was a late arrival to running back and just let his athleticism take over once he was handed the rock, Pender gives the impression that he was simply born to play the position—he had allegedly never seen the inside of a weight room before coming to Tallahassee. He averaged a stunning 11.9 yards per attempt as a senior at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, and he would have done even more damage had his team not already destroyed most opponents by intermission.
It's difficult to determine right now if Pender will become a star in 2014 or fade into obscurity, although neither result would be a huge surprise at this point.
The fortunes of the big three programs in the state of Florida tend to rise and fall from year to year, with Florida State unquestionably pointing up, Miami somewhat treading water and Florida undeniably taking a step back.
There is no more evidence of this than on the recruiting trail, as 5-star standout Dalvin Cook—247Sports rates him as the No. 12 prospect overall, No. 2 running back and No. 1 player in the Sunshine State for 2014—flipped his commitment from the Gators to the Seminoles on New Year's Eve. Already enrolled at FSU for the spring semester, he comes to the 'Noles fresh off a 1,940-yard, 34-touchdown senior season at Miami Central High School.
No matter what the depth chart looks like, some incoming freshmen are simply too talented to stick on the sideline with the cheerleaders, and Cook could most certainly be one of them.
Don't forget about the fullback position, where converted safety Chad Abram is graduating and has a decent chance of making it in the NFL himself.
In addition to being a quality lead blocker for Freeman, Wilder and Williams this past season, Abram developed into a rather reliable safety valve out of the backfield—the touchdown catch he had in the BCS title game had to have been the highlight of his career in garnet and gold. Even if Florida State boasts a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Jameis Winston and weapons aplenty on the outside, Fisher employs a pro-style scheme at its core with plenty of snaps available for a traditional fullback.
First in line to replace Abram will be rising sophomore Freddie Stevenson, a 6'1", 230-pounder who toted the football eight times for 33 yards and a touchdown fresh out of high school.