Monday, June 25, 2018
Colleges

Florida State hopes Wilder runs 'wild and free'

TALLAHASSEE — The moniker is gaining traction in the Panhandle. With the incessancy of a tomahawk chop, its creators want to hammer it into the Seminole Nation's conscience, to make it burn in the bronze ears of Bobby Bowden's statue.

With infomercial zeal, FSU tailbacks James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman are plugging a "Wild and Free" backfield, "WildFree" for short. Wilder has taken the nickname to his coach for patenting.

"If he runs wild and free, I'm good," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I'll call it whatever he wants to call it. It don't bother me."

The Seminoles have dual-back packages to accommodate their two top returning rushers. And with a new quarterback — Jameis Winston or Jacob Coker — being broken in, a "Wild and Free" look early could become more base formation than buzzword.

Considering Freeman's speed and low center of gravity, complemented by Wilder's pile-moving force, the possibilities are intriguing.

So is the nickname.

Off the field, Wilder, a former Plant High prep All-American, insists the "Wild" part of his life is gone off the field.

"I have no more strikes. I can't go out and go do the things I was doing when I was a freshman and a sophomore," said Wilder, 21, a junior and father of an 8-month-old girl, Nala. "At the same time, I'm a father now, so I have to mature up. It's time for me to grow up, and I can't be going to jail and doing dumb things like that."

Among the most lauded college prospects spawned by a Tampa high school, Wilder spent spurts of the 2012 season subduing critics who insisted his ranginess (6 feet 2, 229 pounds) and strength were more suited for defensive-edge rushing (27 total sacks at Plant in 2009 and 2010) than running the ball.

He ran for 635 yards last year, brandished soft hands out of the backfield (19 catches, 136 yards), and converted the most crucial fourth down of the year with a 7-yard gain on fourth-and-1 in the clinching drive of a 28-22 win at Virginia Tech.

"He's tall, he's lanky, and he's big," Freeman said. "And he can cut, he can run people over, he can catch. So he's not too far from all the other running backs. He's really, like, just different."

Yet for all his dazzling spurts, Wilder enters his junior season with three times as many arrests at FSU (three) as 100-yard games.

All three occurred within 11 months, from February 2012 to January of this year. The most serious was came after he was accused of shoving a police officer trying to serve a warrant on an ex-girlfriend (later reduced to a misdemeanor resisting-arrest charge). Wilder was in danger of regressing from can't-miss player to cautionary tale.

Yet by all accounts, he is contrite about the recent past, more focused on expiation than excuses. At FSU's recent media day, Wilder's remorse seemed as profound as the tattoos slathered on his forearms.

"I'm already on, like, strike three. I have no more strikes," Wilder said.

"And at the same time, we always get (together) as a team before the season and we talk. Everybody stands up at the front, and we'll tell each other what we're going through, what we plan on holding each other accountable to."

The evolution has been especially noticeable as Wilder and Freeman find themselves among the team's elder statesmen.

At media day, Fisher called Wilder "a very vocal leader and a leader by example."

"He loves ball. He loves being on that field. You can't work him hard enough. You can't practice long enough," Fisher said.

"I mean, he would've played in the throwback days when you used to have those four-, five- or six-hour practices and been happy. Not a lot of guys do that now."

Now, Seminoles fans are waiting for Fisher to turn his brawny veteran loose in a game, to give him a succession of handoffs and watch him lower his head for an extra yard, maybe drag a nickelback into the end zone the way he did at Plant.

No. 32 is itching to run wild and free.

For James Wilder Jr., that phrase finally has a positive connotation.

"He really mentally is studying the game and doing things," Fisher said. "I'm happy to watch him evolve as a person."

 
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