Devonta Freeman shows the Miami Hurricanes just how close they were in Tallahassee. Freeman will look to lock down the starting job for Florida State. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Tomahawk Nation continues its 2012 spring football preview series with a look at the running backs. Make sure to also read Tuesday's installment on quarterbacks.
The Florida State offense faced enormous challenges heading into 2011. Losing a three year starting QB (and first round NFL draft pick), its entire interior offensive line (technically only two of three) and two of its top three receivers provided all the level of difficulty Jimbo Fisher's group could stand. But these were certainly not the only obstacles. The injury bug plagued the offense without mercy and running backs were not immune. The Noles returned all four running backs that made meaningful contributions the previous year, but the injuries coupled with poor line play humbled the formerly potent running game. The Seminoles amassed their fewest true rushing yards (1737, with sacks taken out) and most sub-100 yard games since 2007.
As noted yesterday, remember that FSU's offense was neither good nor terrible. Sure, compared the excellent attacks in '09 (4th) and '10 (7th) it may have seemed terrible, but it really wasn't. All told, FSU finished with the 32nd best offensive season (adjusted for opponent quality, field position, defensive scoring, etc.). But it wasn't what a program like Florida State should expect, either, and it needs to get back up to the level of '09 and '10.
The Noles look to rebound in 2012 as they enter spring with a good mix of experience and talent, returning players accounting for 74% of all rushing yards and 18 of the 20 touchdowns. Add to the mix, one incredibly talented early enrollee and expectations should be at least moderately high. But before going any further some qualifying remarks should be stated.
Football is the ultimate team sport, which makes position group evaluation somewhat challenging. It is quite difficult to judge a single position when so much of its success or failure depends upon the job performance of others. I believe offensive line play is the single most important factor in determining a quarterback's quality of play. While that may seem obvious to some, I state that only to highlight that it is even more important to running backs. The quarterback is initially moving away from attackers and typically has about three seconds to make up his mind and react. A running back has about half that much time and half again if there are unblocked defenders. Because of this, I find it especially difficult to separate running back from offensive line, even though I attempted to do this numerically last spring.
We will preview the offensive line soon, but it is worth emphasizing now just how much FSU lost with the graduation of Hudson and McMahon, the unexpected loss of Datko and Spurlock, and their backups Snider, Sanderson and Orelus. On true running plays in 2011 FSU averaged 4.9 ypp off left tackle, 6.3 off right tackle and just 3.3 between the tackles.
The 2010 team leader in carries (133), yards (846), TDs (6) and ypc (6.4). Running Backs Coach Eddie Gran demands physical play from his group and perhaps no player benefited more from this philosophy than Chris. He became a complete back and showed toward the end of that season he could be an every down RB and handle 20 carries per game. His 2011 campaign was frighteningly cut short due to a back injury against Wake Forest. His career is not finished, as many assumed, but how much he can handle at this point is unclear. But let's assume he'll be ready to go and discuss what a fully healthy Chris Thompson gives the team.
There really are no weaknesses in his game as he catches the ball well, is good in pass protection and can be effective running inside or outside. He lacks top end speed (extremely overrated anyway), but is FSU's most dangerous big play back as evidenced by three 70+ yard scoring runs in 2010. He excels at reading the blocks, anticipating lanes before fully developed, making decisive cuts and accelerating through the line of scrimmage. What he added to his game after Gran's arrival was power, allowing him to break out of the scat back mold. We should probably credit the strength and conditioning program massive upgrade as well.
Inconsistent line play certainly contributed to his poor 2011 pre-injury numbers as he averaged 3.3 ypc and only 2.8 ypc on standard running downs. While there were fewer and smaller running lanes than FSU backs were accustomed to, his reads were inconsistent at times. I also think he failed to capitalize on the few open field opportunities he had. I won't speculate on all possible reasons, but I don't recall a single open-field one on one that didn't result in a tackle. As the most complete and experienced back on the team, FSU needs him to return to 2010 form. The obvious question is whether or not he'll be physically ready.
Every player talks about team first mentality. Pryor is the team first mentality and rightfully a fan favorite. Switching to fullback was not only best for the offense, but could prove to be a lucrative move for him as well. His prospects at the next level are likely much better at fullback/H-back than running back. He was probably the second best blocker on the 2010 team, behind only Rodney Hudson. Blocking skills alone could probably land him on an NFL squad, but he adds excellent pass catching abilities as a bonus. He averages 9.4 yards per reception with five career TDs on just 28 catches. And he is FSU's active career leader with ten rushing TDs. However, he had just six receptions and averaged only 2.7 ypc (2.4 on standard downs) in 2011. As with all the backs, there were several factors contributing to the drop off.
Possessing below average fullback size, Pryor intentionally put on considerable weight last spring. Normally this would be considered a positive, but it appeared to be detrimental at times as it detracted from his excellent fullback athleticism. At about 215 pounds he routinely--on few opportunities--made 2nd and 3rd level defenders look foolish in the open field (hi, Ray Ray) and that change of direction quickness was missing at 230 pounds. He also appeared merely mortal in pass protection and run blocking on occasion. There were rumors of nagging injuries (of course) that probably contributed to sub-Lonnie level of play. Florida State is not anxious to put out injury info, obviously. Finding the right playing weight will be key this spring. FSU needs 2010 Pryor. Badly.
Freeman progressed from a relatively unknown high school junior to heralded four star recruit in the span of about eight months. Thanks to extremely proactive recruiting and an early offer, the Noles held on to his commitment, got him enrolled early and found their 2011 rushing leader with 120 carries, 4.94 ypc, and 8 TDs. 51.2% of Devonta's carries resulted in successful plays, which would've been second best (52.9%) on the potent 2010 FSU rushing attack. He was the only back to record a 100 yard performance--twice, against Duke and Maryland--but really seemed to hit his stride in a 12 carry, 62 yard performance at Boston College. His reads and decisive cuts were better than I saw from any of the backs, all year. Freeman was not particularly impressive as an open field runner. Nobody expects every run to go the distance, but he let too many opportunities for extra yards get away. This was common to all the backs in 2011 and amplified, even exaggerated, blocking breakdowns. All the backs ran hard, but appeared to be out of control at times. Getting through the line untouched at top speed only to stumble over their own feet or missing an opportunity to evade a less athletic linebacker in open space occurred far too frequently. He proved to be a very good one cut back. Now he needs to get better at making the second cut and take advantage of extra yards when they're there.
Freeman clearly took over the number one spot after Thompson went down as 99 of his 120 carries occurred after the injury. The top spot is his to lose this spring and Thompson (depending on health) is probably the only legitimate challenger. For those of you on the edge of your seat ready to shout "Pender, Pender, Pender!", relax, we'll get there.
James Wilder Jr.
The commonly regarded super star potential linebacker saw limited action at his chosen position in 2011. With a great combination of size, power and natural athleticism, the physical tools are not lacking. In a nutshell, he is built like Adrian Peterson, but runs like Luke Keuchly. As previously mentioned, running lanes were somewhat scarce and perhaps no running back was hampered more than Wilder because of this. Plow mode worked well and earned him youtube legendary status in high school. It's a little more difficult at the FBS level. He did have his moments , though, and was particularly impressive in the compressed red zone early in the Wake Forest game where his power resulted in three successful runs and ultimately a hard-fought TD. For the season, Wilder averaged just 2.25 ypc and 25% success rate on standard running downs in competitive playing time against Div I-A competition. Both stats were team lows, but eight carries really don't constitute much of an opportunity.
The major question is whether or not he possesses the instincts to be a successful running back at this level. This may sound like an entirely innate characteristic, but repetition will certainly help. He needs carries and more carries. Demonstrating better reliability in pass protection would help earn more playing time, but with overall depth chart talent rising quickly you have to wonder if he'll ever really get the chance. If he's not going to stick at running back, the clock is ticking on making the switch.
Wilder is also dealing with the February arrest that resulted in two felonies while trying to prevent an officer from arresting his then girlfriend. FSU does not let players with a pending felony participate in game action, but I cannot remember if they are also barred from practicing.
Delmarick (Mario) Pender
Last spring many of us thought Freeman became the most talented running back on campus, as soon as he set foot on campus. 2011 did little to disprove that notion. I'll say the same this spring about Mario. Although his high school stats were likely inflated a bit due to poor competition, the blend of size and speed is something FSU hasn't had since.....can't be as far back as Sammie Smith, can it? Here's what our recruiting experts had to say:
Smiley came in with a lot of hype and has just not lived up to expectations. He is in good shape, but probably won't get much action due to the logjam at his position. Smiley will graduate from FSU with his degree and has not caused trouble, which is better than we can say for many recruits over the 'Lost Decade'.
Chad saw very limited action with the offense in 2011 and had just two carries for seven yards in mop up duty. He converted from deep, talented defensive backfield and provides good depth at fullback. By all accounts he is a very good blocker, but we haven't seen enough on Saturdays to know how much he can be relied upon. Don't expect much of an increased role in 2012 due to Lonnie Pryor. Potential starter as a senior in 2013, should continue to be a major special teams contributor this season.
Beverly redshirted in 2011 after tearing his ACL. He is a major unknown at this point.