TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The second touchdown was a thing of beauty.
James Wilder Jr. takes a pitch at the 10-yard line, shimmies around a blocker, sidesteps a tackler then dives through another, stretching for the pylon in the corner of the end zone. In his mind, the score had played out 1,000 times, and it always looked exactly the same.
“Those are the touchdowns you dream of,” Wilder said. “When you sit in your hotel room all day, those are the dream touchdowns, and it doesn’t happen a lot.”
Throughout the majority of this season, Wilder’s dreams haven’t come close to reality. The star tailback for Florida State entered the year with big goals: 1,000-yard season, double-digit touchdowns, the NFL. Instead, he’s battled through one injury after another, with Saturday’s two-touchdown game against Miami providing a clear high-water mark after weeks of frustration.
“A lot of stops and starts,” Wilder said.
A year ago, Wilder was a breakout star on the Florida State offense. He rushed for 635 yards, scored 13 times, and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game. But a shoulder injury in the opener against Pittsburgh limited his workload to start the 2013 campaign, and a concussion suffered against Clemson forced him from the Seminoles’ biggest game of the year.
In all, Wilder’s season has consisted of just 50 carries, and last week’s game against Miami accounted for half his touchdowns on the season. Prior to that game, he hadn’t tasted the end zone since FSU’s third game of the season against Bethune-Cookman.
“Realistically, I’m probably not going to get [1,000 yards],” Wilder said. “What do I have, 200 or 300?”
It’s actually 268, but Wilder’s not really interested in counting anymore.
That talk of the NFL doesn’t have the same spark either. Wilder flatly denied reports that he’d already informed a recruit he was bolting for the NFL at season’s end, and he said that, while the injuries present a reminder of the value of cashing in on his talents quickly, his limited role also offers ample motivation to return for his senior year.
“You think, dang, I didn’t really get to show what I’m capable of,” Wilder said. “It’s a half-half thing, but I definitely want to show what I’m capable of in a full, healthy season.”
Regardless of what’s to come in 2014, this season hasn’t unfolded how Wilder had hoped. But at the same time, it’s been so much better than he might’ve imagined.
Wilder’s role hasn’t been significant on the field through eight games, but he’s been a source of energy on the sideline and the practice field even when he’s not carrying the ball. His team is undefeated, currently ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. His close friend, Devonta Freeman, is on pace to crack that 1,000-yard mark, and Wilder said there’s no one he’d rather see end Florida State’s perplexing 17-year drought without a runner eclipsing that mark.
In other words, Wilder’s OK with taking a backseat if the ride’s worth it.
“I’d rather get 400 yards and a national championship than 1,000 yards and not win a national championship,” Wilder said. “Team goals before individual goals. Wherever the chips fall, I’ll go out there and go my hardest every play.”
And Wilder ran hard against Miami. He carried nine times, his most attempts since the opener at Pitt. He converted three third-and-shorts and plowed into the end zone from the 1-yard line for FSU’s third touchdown of the game. He provided a physical spark that the Seminoles hadn’t seen nearly enough of this season.
“He was very physical right on the goal line and blocked well,” Jimbo Fisher said. “I’m glad to have him back out there. He looked strong and healthy.”
Being healthy is always going to be a relative term, Wilder said. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he’s eager to deliver a hit on the field, but the repercussions will occasionally be felt. Playing through pain is a burden he’s willing to live with, but the key is to keep playing.
That was the beauty of the Miami game. For the first time in a long time, Wilder felt like he was making a real impact.
“Being back full-speed and not thinking about injuries, you’re just more confident, more yourself,” he said.
It’s not that the past two months had provided a diminished version of Wilder. He was still a bundle of energy on the practice field, in the locker room and on the sideline, the voice of the offense. He’d run the sideline as his teammates dashed toward the end zone, and he’d be the first to join the celebration when they scored. That never changed.
“He’s that high-energy guy,” Karlos Williams said. “He’s the first one out of the tunnel, always pumped up and ready to go, always rolling, even when he wasn’t playing.”
But Wilder missed finding the end zone himself, and Saturday’s win was a much-needed reminder.
After each score, he was jubilant. He flexed his arms, shouted toward the fans and TV cameras, hugged each teammate. For Wilder, six weeks between touchdowns was a lifetime, and it felt good to finally change the scoreboard again.
“It just all came pouring out,” Wilder said. “It just led to me being very emotional.”