We continue our Florida State football spring questions series with a look at the loaded running backs position group. While we know about the studs that the ‘Noles will have carrying the football in 2014, much of the country will see the losses of Freeman and Wilder as necessitating a drop-off in FSU's production from the RB spot. This is why you're better than they are. You know that Karlos Williams will have a chance to be one of the top backs drafted next season. You know that the speed, shiftiness, and strength possessed by the three backs battling for the second most reps in 2014 is jaw-dropping. And you know that this group could very well end up being something like the third best group of ball carriers in the country this season. Good on you.
Today we'll look at the five backs FSU will have competing during spring ball, which does not include Jay Vickers, who will arrive with most of the freshmen in June. It also does not include Kermit Whitfield, who will see some carries, but is still a slot wideout in our opinion. These backs will have the good fortune to run behind an experienced, talented, and deep offensive line this coming season. Some questions to keep in mind while reading (and to discuss in the comments): (1) what will the apportionment of carries be in 2014? (2) What will the complexion of the running game look like (i.e. 12 personnel under center/pistol v. 21 gun) and how does this affect the roles of the backs in question? (3) Is this the fastest group of running backs FSU has ever fielded?
It's essentially clear that the ‘Noles have a #1 running back set to take the lion's share of carries this coming season. However, as Bud noted in the spring questions preview piece, we consider FSU to have 27 starters, which includes two running backs.
The Freak: Karlos Williams
Karlos Williams is a frighteningly talented human being. You may remember him from such classics as "Chasing Down Kermit Whitfield at 225 pounds in the National Title Game" and "Bulldozing a Hapless Duke Defensive Back 12 Yards Into the Endzone." After finally switching from safety to running back, which he later conceded to have been long overdue, Williams took his first carry from scrimmage 65 yards to the endzone. Karlos had 91 carries for 730 yards in 2013, good for an 8.0 average and 11 touchdowns. While extremely impressive in his first season as a BCS running back, Williams has significant room to improve in 2014. Though he is certainly a physical runner, ‘Los had a tendency to try to get outside to use his speed too quickly, as is the case for many fast, impatient, and inexperienced running backs. It takes time and reps to become an effective 1C runner in a zone scheme, and FSU is a very good zone running team. If Karlos can learn to patiently read his blocks, put his foot in the ground and get up field on FSU's zone plays, he could become a terrifying combination of a fast, physical runner between the tackles with the ability to get outside and break a long one. I believe continuing to learn the position will be the focus of his spring campaign, a bold take on my part.
The Battle for #2
This is where the real intrigue lies. FSU has three uber-talented running backs vying for carries in 2014, as well as a quality contributor at fullback.
Still A Bit Green
Ryan Green logged 33 carries for 163 yards and a score as a true freshman in 2013. Green is a very fast individual (sub 11-second 100m), a theme for this position group. In what will sound like an echo, Ryan sought to show that speed in his limited reps with an affinity for getting to the outside. He lost as many yards in 2013 as Williams did on 60 fewer carries, but it's worth noting that he was frequently playing with other backups in garbage time. I'm interested to see how Green looks physically. FSU lists him at 5'10" 190. Has he put on good weight? I'm also excited to see how he develops within FSU's running scheme. He's an explosive player, but can he develop as a 1C runner and play with the physicality needed to be a consistent threat in both OZ and IZ runs? Green also has an opportunity to emerge as a receiving threat from the backfield, as Williams isn't the most natural pass catcher in the world. It's tempting to see Ryan fitting the profile of a third down type of back as a sophomore, but he'll have the opportunity to grab his carries with a good spring.
After a redshirt season and one lost to academic ineligibility, Mario Pender seems to have figured out how he'll need to conduct himself off of the field to play a significant role at Florida State. He was an Academic Warrior for the fall semester, and Fisher went out of his way to praise Pender when he spoke to the media about 4th Quarter Drills. ‘Noles fans obviously hope not to ever hear him associated with the ridiculous type of situation that developed between him and teammate Ira Denson again. On the field, Pender has all of the skills necessary to be a star at FSU. He's listed at 5'10" 192, and profiles very similarly to the aforementioned Ryan Green. The only time we've really seen Pender is in spring ball last season, though he did rejoin the team for practice after the fall semester to positive reports. While Mario is capable of providing the homerun threat on the outside, how has he picked up the offense? He's had a year longer than Green to do so, and was even an EE in 2012. ‘Noles fans hope the off-field issues are really over for Pender, and the battle between he and the similar Green should be an excellent one this spring.
The Freshman Phenom
Dalvin Cook is the highest rated running back that Jimbo Fisher has signed while at FSU. The stud out of Miami Central also enrolled in January, maximizing his chances of playing early for the ‘Noles. Cook is 5'11" 195 and has been compared to C.J. Spiller and Ladanian Tomlinson, which are decently favorable analogs, I guess. Dalvin is just a special talent. He may not have the freakish straight-line speed of Green and Pender (though it's probably close), but his separating characteristic is his explosive acceleration. Cook can hit creases with amazing quickness and break big runs, and is arguably a more complete back than Green or Pender with his ability to handle a solid workload and run both inside and outside, eventually playing above 200 pounds. However, he'll obviously have a lot to learn in the Florida State offense. He'll need to be able to make the right reads, play well in pass protection, and catch the football. This is a lot to ask of a freshman on a defending national title team, but Cook is the rare type of player with the ability to answer the bell and seize early playing time.
After moving from linebacker to fullback, Stevenson played sparingly in 2013 behind Chad Abram. He saw 8 carries and 2 receptions, but the coaches have spoken highly of Stevenson since the switch. A major question that all of the running backs will have to answer is how well they can protect Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in passing situations. Devonta Freeman was one of the best college backs I've seen in doing so, and that will be a major hole that the ‘Noles will have to fill at the running back spot. In fact, I think that a lot of personnel choices this coming season will be dictated by the answer to this question. If none of the preceding three players can reliably pass protect and Stevenson can, then Freddie will see the field a significant amount alongside Karlos Williams. Protecting the best player in the country will be a top priority, even if doing so comes at the expense of taking a home run threat like Green, Pender, or Cook off of the field. Stevenson can also increase his snap count by being able to catch the ball. Winston has proven willing to throw the ball to anyone (see: Newberry, Gio) and Abram scored a huge touchdown in Pasadena. If Stevenson can separate himself from the three running backs battling for the #2 spot in his ability block, know the offense, and occasionally catch the ball, he'll see the field. While I don't expect to see many carries for Stevenson, I do believe he can provide valuable contributions as a sophomore.
In short, the battle for the second running back position comes down to several key factors: who can learn the offense to the greatest extent? Which back proves himself reliable in pass protection? Can any of them demonstrate a receiving threat? These backs are so similarly freakishly talented that the separation margin will likely be razor thin. Jimbo has proven willing to split carries among many backs, so the apportionment of carries is very much up for grabs this spring. Even a sophomore fullback will play an important role in determining who sees the field in 2014. I am biased, but I believe that this position group is the most fun to watch this spring. Let’s hear your thoughts!