TALLAHASSEE — When Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher faced questions about his depth at running back after star Dalvin Cook was charged with misdemeanor battery, Fisher fell back to one key point.If Mario Pender had stayed healthy last year, most college football fans would never have even heard of Cook.So as Cook, last year's leading rusher, remains indefinitely suspended heading into today's scheduled trial, the Seminoles seem just fine trusting their backfield to the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Pender."I think he can be a real special back," co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "It's a lot easier to be special when you're out there (on the field)."And that has been the biggest challenge so far for Pender, a redshirt junior from Cape Coral.He entered FSU as a U.S. Army All-American, a top-100 national recruit and a five-star prospect, according to one scouting service. Pender enrolled at FSU early and was expected to battle for playing time in 2012, but a sports hernia forced him to redshirt as a true freshman. The next fall, he was ruled academically ineligible five days before the opener, so he sat out as the Seminoles won their third national title.Pender finally got his chance to play in the 2014 opener and took his first career carry 11 yards for a touchdown. His 56-yard rush against Wake Forest was FSU's longest of the year, and he scored his fourth touchdown of the season at Syracuse in his first career start."Those first couple games, everyone saw what he could do," Seminoles quarterback Sean Maguire said.But they didn't get to see it for long. First a concussion sidelined him against North Carolina State. Then he sustained what he thought was a minor ankle injury. It ended up limiting him to only nine games and 41 carries."I ended up tearing some ligaments and near-about breaking it," Pender said. "… It's definitely tough, you know? But that's one thing about it — it will mold you and help you grow."Pender has shown plenty of toughness in fall camp. After one practice, Fisher told reporters that Pender had an infection under his toe. He didn't even need a painkiller to cut off the toenail. A day later, he was back at practice, preparing for a potential, long-awaited breakout season."Whenever he's been healthy, he's been pretty good for us," Sanders said. "He's fast. He's strong. He's elusive. He's intelligent. He understands protections. He understands what his role is when he's not getting the ball."That's partly because of Pender's experience in the system. He and Maguire are the two offensive players left from the Seminoles' 2012 recruiting class. Just as Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. mentored him, Pender is trying to become a leader in the locker room."I'm bigger, faster, stronger," Pender said. "I'm a lot smarter. I kind of fit into the system now since I'm a redshirt junior. I've been here over three years. I feel like I'm a lot more comfortable now."And on the field, Pender is finally confident. He no longer questions what kind of an impact he can have on FSU's offense."I feel like I proved that I'm a very capable back, being a home-run hitter, being an every-down back," Pender said. "I feel like I proved that I can be that guy."Now he's trying to prove he can do it for a full season. Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com . Follow @MBakerTBTimes .