James Wilder's on a mission
While some say he's better suited to play LB, Wilder out to make his mark as RB
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- He can run through defenders. He can chase down quarterbacks. James Wilder can pretty much do whatever he wants on the gridiron, but what he wants to do is be a running back. And the U.S. Army All-American and four-star thoroughbred from Tampa (Fla.) Plant will do just that at Florida State, where he will fill a big missing piece for the Jimbo Fisher offense.
"FSU has some good backs but they don't have the big back," Wilder said. "I want to be the hammer of the school, the hammer of the team. I want to get in the rotation and learn what I need to learn and play early."
"I run with power and refuse to go down," Wilder said. "My job is to get into the end zone."
What makes Wilder such an intriguing prospect is that many, including his high school coach, Robert Weiner, feel he's better suited to play linebacker.
"I have always said this: James Wilder is the single most disruptive force I have ever seen on defense. As good as an offensive player and threat that he is James is that much better on defense," Weiner said. "That's where his playing experience has been. He's just in the infancy as offensive player. He really is a guy that's impossible to block. We moved him everywhere on defense and in different spots. James is a real hard matchup. It's just so hard to block him. You can't block him."
While he loves sacking quarterbacks and stuffing running backs, Wilder also loves to bang heads, move the chains and take the football to the house. Sometime during the past season, Wilder made the decision to set his sights on the offensive side of the ball, rather than defense.
"I like running back and linebacker," Wilder said. "As a linebacker I am a big-time hitter. I can come off the edge and blitz. I am a sacker. Right now I am a little undersized for a defensive end but I can bull rush or go with the speed move. I'm a powerful and smart defender.
"I just think at the running back position you have the ball in your hands and can control the game more."
Wilder certainly has great bloodlines, as his father, James Wilder Sr., is one of the all-time great Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The elder Wilder was a big, bruising back and the apple didn't fall too far from the tree. His father, along with his older brother Curtis, both were major influences in making him the player he is today.
"My dad from the start has been telling me everything. He was a big running back and he has given me tips over the years and he has so much experience," Wilder said. "He's pretty old and can't train with me much. That's where my brother comes in. He's been my trainer since I started hitting the weights at 14, running the beach, parachuting, and running hills. He always keeps my head on straight."
While Wilder certainly has made great strides as a running back, he knows that he has a long way to go to become the ultimate weapon he thinks he can be. Wilder committed to play for the Seminoles and will work with running backs coach Eddie Gran, who's one of the best in the nation. Gran's résumé includes coaching Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Deuce McAllister, John Avery, Rudy Carpenter, Kenny Irons, Heath Evans, Brandon Jacobs, Montario Hardesty and Ben Tate.
"I'm looking to learn a lot from coach [Eddie] Gran. I only have two years of running back experience at the high school level," Wilder said. "Look at all the running backs in the NFL and I mean big-time running backs. He's teaching them something I don't know yet. I can't wait to get under his wing and [have him] develop me so I can get to the next level."
But there's more to Wilder than just the football player. He's smart and is the ultimate teammate.
"What most people see is this hulking figure with veins popping out all over his body. He's some kind of talent, a guy with size, speed and ball skills. But there's so much more," Weiner said. "First, James has an incredible football IQ and his knowledge of game is off the charts. He's been around the game a long time. And the thing is you can teach him something and he picks it up and puts it in his game instantly. Only the great ones can do that.
"James is also an amazing teammate. He knows the code to be a football player. He's so well known to everyone from the outside and it seems like everyone wants to hate on him. They don't understand the personal characteristic he brings to a team.
"And his personality is tremendous. James has as good a heart as there is. He's always laughing and has a great personality to be around. He kept our team focused, loose and ready to go."
Tampa Plant quarterback Phillip Ely saw that firsthand on the field and in the locker room.
"James has been awesome and is definitely a unique player," Ely said. "You can't find guys like that around. The thing is he doesn't do it for himself, he does it for his team. He always gives all the credit to the linemen and the wideouts blocking for him. That's the kind of guy he is. He never takes credit for himself."
Before Wilder makes his way up north from Tampa to Tallahassee, he has one final football game to play this weekend: the U.S. Army All-American Game at the Alamo Dome. Wilder is elated to be a part of the East Team and he just hopes an injury in the state championship game against Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas doesn't slow him down.
"I got X-rays and a rib or two got broken. But I am coming out here and having a good time. I have had no contact and [am] wearing [rib] pads," Wilder said. "Saturday will determine whether I will play or not.
"This is the best of the best right here, at practice. There are no standouts because we are all standouts and we all pushing each other to practice hard. We are all competing for a spot and I think that has made us work hard. We need to come together and make something happen."
Making something happen is what Fisher is hoping Wilder will do once he arrives in Tallahassee. After all, Fisher is getting his hammer.
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.