Obviously, Dalvin Cook will start for Florida State September 5th against Ole Miss. Cook currently has 12/1 odds to win the Heisman and will be near the top of everybody's best-of and draft lists. The returning junior has little to prove at Florida State, considering he's run for more yards than any other freshman at FSU and has stacked up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
While NFL teams will knock Cook for injury issues last year, there's little he can do to waylay those attacks. Cook played strongly through his injuries and they were not contact related, meaning he can take a hit. Cook can add to his resume by being a strong leader for the 2016 Seminoles, especially if Sean Maguire does not win the starting QB spot. Early indications are that Cook has taken to this role and is pushing the team in the weight room and on the practice fields.
Cook can also improve in the passing game as a blocker and receiver. Running backs rarely see contested catches and don't get a ton of looks, so each drop is magnified. If Cook can prove he has soft hands and the required concentration to be a threat out of the backfield, both he and the Seminoles will greatly benefit.
Careers don't get much tougher than the one Mario Pender has endured. After red-shirting in 2012, Pender missed all of 2013 due to academic issues but he did return in a position to start in 2014. Start he did, but he eventually lost his job to Cook after getting injured against Syracuse. Pender had begun to come into his own as a runner, seeing more carries in every successive game until his injury. Looking to rebound once again in 2015, Pender suffered a collapsed lung three games into the season and was not able to return. Once more, Mario Pender is looking to put his sizable talent to use for Florida State.
Frankly, Pender can improve just by staying on the field. The fifth-year senior certainly has the athletic ability and vision to be drafted by an NFL team come spring but must show it on the playing field. It's hard to say what else Pender can improve, because we haven't seen much of him to begin with. If he can stay healthy, FSU looks to sport a deadly backfield with Cook and Pender leading the way.
Jacques Patrick excited fans early due to his size and ability to run over people in the open field. Unfortunately, Patrick has not shown the ability to run with that sort of power where it really matters: between the tackles. It's common for bigger backs to dance a bit early in their career when running inside because they are used to being the most talented player on the field. However, Patrick must discover the mentality of a bruiser if he is to succeed. Too often he looked to bounce a run outside when he would have been better off sticking his nose inside for a few yards.
Even if he does improve, Patrick may still see his carries drop due to Pender's return, and that's probably a good thing. If he is not expected to spell Cook as an every down back, coaches can force Patrick to work on running harder and improving his pass protection, two things most backs struggle with early on in their careers.
Patrick was also hesitant at times in deciding what hole to run through, resulting in him losing all momentum heading toward the line. Running backs should not stop their feet behind the line of scrimmage as doing so gives the defense all the leverage. Coaching can improve a running back's vision to a degree, but a better understanding of the offense, combined with the mental change discussed above, could remove much of Patrick's indecision.
Amir Rasul arrives in Tallahassee to find a crowded backfield. While it's possible Rasul takes a red shirt for 2016, Jimbo Fisher does not usually go that route for skill players. Rasul must prove to coaches that he can properly block in pass protection and not get his QB killed.
Expect Amir to mostly get time during blow outs and a few third downs here and there. The speedy back can be brought in as a change-of-pace back for Florida State, likely to be expected to attack a defense through off tackles and pitches as opposed to running between the tackles. If Rasul can impress with his route running and receiving abilities, he could be an exciting third-down back.
Johnathan Vickers could split time at both RB and FB, but the backfield is quite full. Last year, Vickers did see an uptick in carries, but that was mostly due to injuries to Cook and Patrick. Either way, he acquitted himself well and will likely get more opportunities to do so in 2016.
Freddie Stevenson has manned the fullback position for two straight 1,000 yard rushers at FSU and will look to improve on that number in 2016. In addition, he played a big role backing up Chad Abram while leading the way for Devonta Freeman to finally break the 1,000 yard mark during the '13 National Championship season. Stevenson has also done a very nice job as a receiver out of the backfield and, with an improved offensive line, could build on those skills in 2016.
Gabe Nabers joins the FSU backfield as a late signing-week addition. Nabers will not likely see much time in the backfield for the Noles but could get some opportunities in blow outs and special teams.
In 2015 Dalvin Cook touched the ball 23 times per game (not including the Wake Forest game in which he only had three touches due to injury), and there's little reason he should have to do so in 2016. An expected improvement along the offensive line combined with Mario Pender's return and another year in the system for all returning backs could result in an ever-rotating backfield designed to keep backs fresh. No matter which signal caller Florida State fields, it should always be able to move the chains by handing the ball off.