Pender could be the star of spring

Despite the fact that he could still be walking the halls of Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, early-enrollee tailback Mario Pender got a lot of praise from coach Jimbo Fisher on Day 1.

One of the deeper spots on this year's Florida State team will be the tailback position.

With contributors Devonta Freeman, James Wilder and Chris Thompson returning, it might be assumed that there isn't much need for another ball carrier.

However, the running back situation proved to be one of the biggest questions on the first day of spring practice. There is certainly plenty of depth at the position, but there are issues surrounding all three of the aforementioned players.

Freeman is going to miss all of spring, as he suffers from a back injury that is similar to what Thompson had to deal this past year -- before he broke said back Oct. 8 at Wake Forest. As for Thompson, he won't be involved in any contact drills, and Wilder isn't able to participate in any football-related activities until his recent legal situation has been resolved.

Therefore, there may be no bigger hole on the roster right now then the one that lines up deepest behind senior quarterback E.J. Manuel.

That's where Mario Pender can step in right away.

The early-enrollee freshman tailback impressed coach Jimbo Fisher on Monday and could have an immediate impact this coming fall.

"I'll tell you what, don't give him green grass to get down that sideline," said Fisher after the workout. "He's got some cuts, he caught the ball well out of the backfield, made a couple of nice runs. A couple times you would go, 'Oh, who is that?'"

The coaching staff's initial impression of Pender may be based strictly on his athletic ability. After all, he just experienced his first day of college football practice and will need time to learn what it takes to bring it at the next level.

Nonetheless, enrolling early can only help him learn faster, and by the time the other backs are ready to compete, he will have already had an entire spring under his belt.

And he may even have the capacity to learn faster than Fisher originally thought.

"I'm going to tell you now, I was shocked," he said. "He did a really nice job. There was a couple times where you'd have to tell him what to do three or four times, but, I mean, I thought it would be 34 or 35 times."

Pender, a five-star recruit from Cape Coral, has been committed to Florida State since early in 2010. He attended Island Coast High School, where he was primarily used as a wingback in an option-heavy attack.

While there may some learning curve in adapting to a new offensive scheme at FSU, Fisher believes he should be able to adapt in a hurry.

"I believe this: You tell him the blocking scheme, and hand him the ball," he said. "If you have to tell him how to run, then that's between him and God. He can stay with his cuts, and for the most part he was pretty good at it."

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Being pretty good on Day 1 is only a positive.

As spring practice carries along, one of the important aspects to watch will be how long it takes for Pender to become a reliable receiver out of the backfield. He spent most of his time in high school running the ball, which led him to an impressive junior campaign -- he totaled more than 2,000 yards on the ground.

Still, pass-catching backs are necessary for Fisher's offensive philosophy, and there will be lots to pick up in that department for the first-year collegian.

However, it certainly seems as he is off to a rousing start.

Matt Ritter is a football and basketball reporter for, as well as a graduate student in Media Communication Studies at Florida State.

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