TAMPA — Against an undertow of public opinion and a current of common perception, James Wilder Jr. voyages cheerily onward, refusing to believe he must right his sleek, sturdy ship.
A veritable sea of observers — coaches, casual fans and a collage of recruiting analysts — say Plant High’s two-way force of nature projects far more favorably as an outside linebacker or defensive rush end in college than his preferred position of running back.
The reasons arrive in profusion.
ESPN national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell: “As a runner, he doesn’t get low.”
Robinson coach Mike DePue: “He could be the next Derrick Brooks … if he wanted to be.”
Recruiting service pioneer Tom Lemming: “High school-wise, you can get by with (running upright). But in college, they’ll take some shots at him.”
ESPN national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg: “I think he has more upside defensively as an (outside linebacker/end). I have always thought that over the past few years.”
Wilder, a Florida State commitment and the St. Petersburg Times Blue Chip Player of the Year, has heard them all. Ad nauseam.
Normally, he might even lend credence to some. But for this alternately fierce and fun-loving consensus prep All-American, one mitigating fact, one simple rebuttal rises to trump all of their arguments.
He finds defense boring.
“(Offense) is more fun to me,” Wilder, son of the former Buccaneers workhorse tailback of the same name, said Thursday afternoon. “I think when you have the ball in your hands, you can actually control the game more. I just have more passion for the running back position.”
Honoring Wilder’s preference enabled the Seminoles to secure his commitment in August. In Wilder, they’re getting a coveted package of ranginess (6 feet 2, 220 pounds), blue-chip speed and a sheer will that has proved incomparable at times.
Over the past two seasons, Wilder has totaled more than 2,500 rushing yards, 36 touchdowns, 25 victories and a Class 5A state title. With a menacing forward body lean, he has carried multiple defenders into an end zone and shaken off other tacklers as if they were pesky cobwebs.
Meantime, he has amassed more than 200 tackles, 27 sacks and three blocked field goals. Yet venture to YouTube, and Wilder’s runs (see the 2009 Bradenton Manatee and Lakeland games) have earned immortalization.
But even the most astute observers say that could change at the next level.
“He is athletic as (heck), but I think he runs the ball too upright,” said Hillsborough High’s Earl Garcia, who has won nearly 200 games in a quarter-century as a head coach.
“His physical style of running the ball will be different against (Division I-A) competition than it is in high school. He is physically so much better than the average high school football player. The physical gap will close considerably in college.”
Wilder’s retort: Look at Adrian Peterson, who evolved into a first-team All-American at Oklahoma and Pro Bowl tailback with the Vikings despite possessing roughly the same body type (6-1, 217) as Wilder.
“Adrian Peterson … stands up just like I do,” Wilder said. “Just be an athlete. You can stand up however you’re comfortable. People have different running styles.”
And motives. For all the astounding measurements he has recorded, be it with a stopwatch or body-fat barometer, perhaps the best thing Wilder has going for him in his quest to be a dominant I-A tailback is the skepticism itself.
“Ninety percent of the people say I can’t be a running back at the next level,” he said. “So that’s about half the reason I’m playing running back — to prove everybody wrong.”
For the good ship Wilder, the likes of which rarely has sailed through Tampa Bay, that might — just might — be enough to leave the naysayers in his wake.
“I think he really has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove people wrong,” Farrell said.
“Everyone tells him he could be a great linebacker, so maybe there’s no challenge there for him. Maybe the challenge is to prove to everyone he can be a great running back, and FSU is going to give him that chance.”