Replacing Chris Thompson

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The play was a simple wheel route, and clad in shorts and sneakers, James Wilder Jr. ran through the motions, jogging out to the sideline before looking back for quarterback EJ Manuel.

Wilder cut off his route after a scout-team defender followed him to the sideline, and Jimbo Fisher was furious, sprinting out to meet his sophomore tailback to emphasize the need to continue the route upfield.

It's only Monday, and this was little more than an early-practice walkthrough. But during Florida State's first practice without veteran running back Chris Thompson, Fisher wasn't interested in glossing over the details.

"That's why I talk about missing Chris so much," Fisher said. "It's all those things you never see, that you're not even coaching, that he can ad-lib and do."

The task of replacing Thompson in Florida State's backfield falls to Wilder and fellow sophomore Devonta Freeman, and both have proven capable of maintaining the immense success the Seminoles' ground game has enjoyed so far this season. It's the little things, those small details that Thompson owned, that has Fisher concerned.

Wilder has taken huge strides following a forgettable freshman campaign and currently ranks third in the ACC in touchdowns. Freeman has seen his snaps decrease this season after spending last year as the de facto starter, but he's refined his understanding of the playbook and concentrated on the details.

But Thompson was a unique talent, and filling the void following his season-ending ACL injury won't be an easy task.

"Chris was probably the most consistent guy I've ever met in my life," center Bryan Stork said. "And he's probably one of the best running backs I'll ever block for."

Fisher said fullback Lonnie Pryor will see an increase in touches, too, but he downplayed the notion of more designed runs for Manuel or the possibility of giving touches to safety Karlos Williams on offense.

Instead, the bulk of the work will fall to Freeman and Wilder, and in terms of production, it may not represent a huge downgrade for Florida State. Only six players in the ACC are averaging at least six yards per carry this season, and three are on Florida State's roster.

In fact, the increased role could be a boon for Wilder and Freeman, who have both seen their carries fluctuate from week to week while waiting in the wings behind Thompson.

"The workload is going to go up," Wilder said. "It's a great opportunity to show coach that we're prepared."

After Thompson departed Saturday's game early in the second quarter, Wilder and Freeman combined for 119 yards rushing and three touchdowns. The combination of Wilder's physical presence and Freeman's agility and burst makes for a dangerous combination.

"We're going to be a great 1-2 punch filling that space," said Wilder, who Fisher said will be the nominal starter going forward.

Beyond the running game, however, there are questions.

Thompson was injured after coming down with a leaping grab on a 32-yard pass from EJ Manuel -- a wheel route in which Thompson streaked upfield. For the season, Thompson has 21 catches, the third-most on the team. His role was diverse, and while Fisher has raved about Wilder's pass-catching abilities, few running backs excelled at the job like Thompson.

Thompson was exceptional as a pass blocker, too. It was no coincidence that as Florida State's line struggled in protection against NC State earlier this year, Thompson saw a season high in snaps.

From a leadership perspective, few players in the Seminoles locker room enjoyed the same level of respect. When Freeman's cousin was killed earlier this season, it was Thompson who offered support and advice. When Wilder struggled with off-field issues, it was Thompson who offered structure. He was a mentor as much as he was a teammate.

"He taught me and Freeman everything we know on the field," Wilder said.

Fisher routinely called Thompson "our best offensive player" when announcing the injury Monday, and that production goes beyond the stats.

But while Thompson's absence will be felt on game day, the standard he set is already impacting his understudies.

"He knew that playbook like the back of his hand, and I've got to get on that level," Freeman said.

Of course, Thompson was still at practice Monday, too. He sat in on meetings with his fellow running backs and he remained upbeat despite the injury. He'll remain a part of the team, even if he's not on the field.

It's not the way Wilder and Freeman wanted to inherit the job. At halftime Saturday, Wilder suggested dedicating the remainder of the game to Thompson. Now, he said the running backs plan to honor their fallen leader the rest of the way by making the most of the opportunity they've been given.

"This is our chance to do this, to show what the future in the backfield is going to be like," Wilder said. "And we can show it now."