Florida State came into the 2011 campaign expecting to be explosive, as quarterback E.J. Manuel wasn't the typical first-year starter and he was surrounded with copious amounts of skill-position talent, but an early-season shoulder injury to Manuel and a porous offensive line proved to be too much to overcome.
If the Seminoles are going to be an elite offense in 2012, not only must the blocking up front vastly improve, but a punishing runner that can consistently get the job done in short-yardage and goal-line situations would be a welcome sight.
"James Wilder had a slow start to his Seminole career," said Jason Staples, the football analyst for NoleDigest.com, "as his first year was spent learning pass protection and how to read blocks in a zone scheme. Next year that should all be second nature, and Wilder offers that big back Seminole fans haven't seen since the Greg Jones freight train departed for the NFL. Jimbo Fisher loves big backs, saying they often 'do more right by accident than the little guys do on purpose,' and Wilder should add another 10 pounds of muscle after an offseason with Vic Viloria, making him the ideal thunder to the lightning provided by Devonta Freeman, Mario Pender and Chris Thompson, if he is able to return. If the offensive line makes the expected improvements in the offseason, look for Wilder to be the second-half battering ram when the ‘Noles play from ahead."
Keep in mind that he must learn to be a complete back in this system, as Fisher does not like to be predictable based on personnel alone and, therefore, shied away from using Wilder strictly in short yardage and goal line when he was a freshman.
While the Seminoles suffered some lapses on the defensive side of the football during a crushing three-game losing streak to Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest, once the rotations were set and the major contributors all got healthy, this unit was nothing short of dominating for prolonged stretches.
The pass-rushing combination of Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner off the edges just about guarantees no opposing quarterback will have too much time in the pocket, but it's having a talent like Cornellius Carradine off the bench that gives coordinator Mark Stoops an embarrassment of riches.
"Carradine took a while to get used to the speed of major college football," Staples said of the junior-college transfer, "often late getting off the ball and playing tentatively in early games, but he was outstanding late in the year with almost no dropoff when he subbed for Jenkins or Werner. The man they call 'Tank' is one of the best athletes on the team and has outstanding pass-rush instincts that I expect to see showcased next year. His continued development will allow lots of flexibility up front when the ‘Noles need pressure, as we can expect to see him on the field together with Jenkins and Werner on many passing downs."
The New York Giants are in Sunday's NFC Championship Game in part because they have had success featuring four ends on the D-line at one time in obvious passing situations, so it wouldn't be out of the question for a big body like Werner or Carradine to slide inside and play some tackle here and there.
FSU kicked, punted, returned and covered as well as any program in the country this past season, as Dustin Hopkins was near automatic on field goals, Shawn Powell led the nation in punting, Greg Reid scored a punt-return touchdown against Miami and the coverage teams were suffocating.
Replacing Powell won't be easy, as he was a difference maker all season long, but if the offense can pick things up a notch, perhaps the 'Noles won't have to punt so often and can focus more on the return game.
"Karlos Williams was inches and a holding penalty away from breaking out as a kickoff returner in 2011," said Staples, "and I expect 2012 to be the year he bursts onto the scene as one of the best kickoff returners in all of college football. Williams' impact will also help fellow returner Greg Reid, as I anticipate that teams will actually prefer to kick to Reid by the end of the year. Williams was also the bell cow of the FSU coverage teams in 2011, a role I expect to see reprised next year."
He is a crucial component to this phase of special teams because it's possible we've seen the last of Reid on kick returns -- Lamarcus Joyner and Rashad Greene, not Reid, shared those duties in the Champs Sports Bowl win over Notre Dame, when Williams was unavailable due to a broken wrist.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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