TALLAHASSEE — James Wilder Jr. knew all about the expectations. He was the state's Mr. Football and widely considered one of the best running backs and linebackers in the nation.
It was just natural that the former Plant High star would make a significant impact as a freshman at Florida State. Wilder figured he would, too.
"For me it was pretty hard, coming out of high school," Wilder said. "I came here with big expectations, and didn't really admit but it was my fault — playbook issues. I knew the playbook but I wasn't quite comfortable.
"I always knew what I had to do, but I didn't always know what everybody was doing. So that messed me up. It was pretty hard."
Wilder earned some playing time in 2011, rushing for 160 yards. He also had a touchdown run against Wake Forest.
He had shown a glimpse of his talent, punishing defenders as he averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Wilder wanted to showcase more of his abilities, but another freshman, Devonta Freeman, enrolled early in January 2011 and was more prepared than Wilder.
Wilder's goal was to dive into the playbook and prepare for spring practice, but he was forced to sit out the first few weeks.
'I had two strikes against me'
Wilder stood before his coaches and teammates in a crowded team meeting room this summer.
The offseason had been tumultuous — in February Wilder was charged with obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence and battery on a law enforcement officer during an arrest of his girlfriend.
And, while on probation in June, Wilder reported for work camp and a Breathalyzer recorded a .01 blood alcohol content. It was well below the driving impairment limit of .08, and likely would not be admissible in court. But the court considered any alcohol consumption to be a violation of his probation.
After Wilder spent 10 days in the Leon County Jail, he rejoined the team. But first he faced them and apologized.
"I got into trouble not once but twice. I had two strikes against me," Wilder said Tuesday afternoon. "… I looked into everybody's eyes and everybody's faces, and I said, 'Do you all accept me? Are you going to hold this against me?' "
Wilder was remorseful. He apologized to his teammates, players he calls brothers. The response was unanimous.
"They all supported me," Wilder said. "I definitely appreciate it, for everybody having my back and supporting me and not releasing me off the team. I think that shows how much the team really loves me and wants me to contribute toward this season."
Looking ahead to 2012
Florida State's backfield is loaded with talent, including Wilder, senior Chris Thompson and Freeman. There's a perception that the three are competing for carries, but running backs coach Eddie Gran doesn't mind splitting up the opportunities.
Gran says he can see a difference in Wilder, that he is more diligent about learning the offense.
"He's taking better notes," Gran said. "He's taking it more serious. He's taken more initiative to make sure he knows what to do and to be consistent every day."
The Seminoles need consistency in the running game. They lost Thompson five games into the season and injuries accumulated on the offensive line, too. FSU struggled on the ground in 2011, rushing for just 1,458 yards. The Seminoles' 112.1 rushing yards per game ranked 104th out of 120 Division I-A teams.
But with experience and maturity, the running game should be better. Thompson and Freeman are healthy again after back injuries. The offensive line, which started four freshmen in the bowl win over Notre Dame, has made significant strides this offseason.
And Wilder believes that the trio of running backs can maximize carries and wear out defenses in the fourth quarter.
"Third quarter, fourth quarter, the linebackers I doubt they will rotate as much as us running backs," Wilder said. "We're going to be fresh. I think that will be an advantage."