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RBs share goal: Dominate

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- James Wilder Jr. bought the box long before Florida State's opener, a glass trophy case awaiting an occupant.

The owner of just 35 career carries before Saturday, there wasn't much history to inspire Wilder's confidence, but he knew things would be different this season. There would be opportunities and there would be success and there would be trophies.

It took just two quarters for the sophomore to earn his first one.

Wilder collected the game ball following his first 100-yard rushing performance despite not getting his first touch until the second half against Murray State. He toted the ball with him for the remainder of the night then set it inside the case as a memento. It was a proud moment, but the hope is there will be more to come.

"I have big expectations for this to happen a lot this year," Wilder said.

Wilder is not alone in his enthusiasm. Nine months after FSU finished the 2011 season as one of the worst rushing offenses in college football, there's suddenly a lot of confidence in the Seminoles' backfield.

Chris Thompson returned from a broken back and delivered some punishing runs against Murray State. "He was all smiles," EJ Manuel said.

Devonta Freeman split time in the first half with Thompson, and racked up 64 yards on 10 carries while delivering some strong blocking on one of Lonnie Pryor's touchdown runs.

Pryor and fellow fullback Debrale Smiley tallied five touchdowns between them, both looking like powerful threats at the goal line. "I feel like they stole some of my touchdown passes," Manuel joked.

And then there was Wilder, the 6-foot-2 bruiser who bulldozed his way to the best game of his career.

"We want to be the best backfield in the country," Thompson said. "We have different guys who do different things, but everybody's got a feel for their roles."

It was one game against a lesser opponent, but it was exactly the performance FSU's runners had been waiting for -- a game in which each member of an increasingly diverse backfield had his moment to shine, and the sum total was nearly 300 yards of offense on the ground.

It's not that Murray State provided a real challenge, but the reasons for optimism were already so abundant.

In practice, Thompson showed that old burst he'd used to gain nearly 900 yards on the ground as a sophomore in 2010. Wilder put the legal troubles that dogged his offseason behind him and wowed coaches with his versatility. Freeman had stepped into the role of starter by the end of 2011, and that experience was evident as the sophomore looked the part of a veteran throughout fall camp.

The enthusiasm was so abundant by the opener that when a team assistant forgot to recover the tee after a kickoff, Wilder's pent-up energy boiled over into his first big run of the day.

"He sprinted out there on the field, grabbed the tee and ran off," Jimbo Fisher said. "I think he's seeing the world in a good way."

It's all perception, Freeman said. He might have lost his starting job when Thompson returned, but he sees so much possibility in using the deeper backfield to wear down defenders.

On the offensive line, experience is thin, but Thompson has seen the big men dominate in practice. He's positive those same running lanes will be there once the competition toughens during ACC play.

Wilder knows he's pegged as the power back because of his size, and he loves that teams have already pigeonholed each runner in a set role.

"I had a big run to the outside. Lonnie had a run to the outside. We're diverse," Wilder said. "We can do anything. Our smaller backs are powerful. We can go on the goal line with Chris Thompson or third-and-13 and run a screen with me. That's what's special about us."

This is a far cry from a year ago when Florida State slumped to the finish line behind a patchwork offensive line and a running game that often missed holes they were afforded. Even in FSU's bowl win over Notre Dame, a game heralded as the turning of the tide for the offensive line, the Seminoles mustered just 41 yards on the ground.

"Last year, a lot of the (lost) yards came from us having bad reads or not hitting the holes fast enough," Thompson said. "Now, everybody is seeing the holes a whole lot better. We're just competing every day to make each other better."

The possibilities for a more balanced offense are immense. After Saturday's game, Fisher was downright giddy when he considered how much a strong running game might open up his play-calling options down the road.

"You can force people to play the box, and now you get guys one-on-one down the field, play action, create the big plays," Fisher said. "It gives you that second dimension."

For Florida State, it is a time to imagine infinite possibilities, and that's an impressive accomplishment in its own right.

It's been 16 years since FSU had a 1,000-yard back, but Freeman said that's a goal he thinks about almost every day.

"To me, I look at Warrick Dunn and all the great running backs that came through, I look at it as motivation," Freeman said. "Every time I hear somebody say, 'When you going to get that 1,000 yards?' I look at it as motivation. That's something I've got to accomplish before I leave here."

But even amid the borderline euphoria of the opening-week performance for Florida State's runners, that's probably a benchmark just a shade out of reach.

Freeman would need to average 72 yards a game the rest of the way, a total he eclipsed just three times last year despite getting the bulk of the running load.

But Wilder and Thompson admit the number is on their minds, too, and as unlikely a goal as it might be, this is a time when anything seems possible.

After all, running backs coach Eddie Gran watched two of his runners top the 1,000-yard mark in 2004 when he coached at Auburn. That's a fact he's passed along to his current stable of runners on occasion.

For Freeman and the rest of FSU's runners, it's about seeing an infinitely brighter future than remembering the ugliness of a year ago. It's a new day for FSU's backfield, he insists, and that makes aiming high just a starting point.

"A thousand yards, it's possible," Freeman said. "It's very possible."