By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As spring football inches closer, Seminoles.com’s position-by-position preview of the 2015 Florida State football team continues with a look at the running backs.
Coach: Jay Graham (Tennessee ’04, third year at Florida State)
Who’s in: Dalvin Cook (6-0, 200; SO), Mario Pender (5-10, 193; RS SO), Jonathan Vickers (6-1, 213; SO), Freddie Stevenson (6-1, 237; JR), Jacques Patrick (6-1, 230; FR)
Who’s out: Karlos Williams (689 yards, 12 total TDs in 2014), Ryan Green (moved to cornerback)
The buzz: Florida State in 2015 will replace its quarterback, its top two receiving targets and four senior offensive linemen.
So if there ever were a good time to lean on a star running back, this might be it.
And make no mistake, sophomore Dalvin Cook is on the verge of stardom.
A Miami native who began his career behind an established senior on the depth chart, Cook slowly and steadily took control of FSU's backfield and, by late October, had emerged as one of the Seminoles' most dynamic offensive threats.
By the time he finished, Cook had blown past FSU’s freshman rushing record with 1,008 yards and added eight TDs.
For an encore, Cook will be asked to carry a much heavier load, and he knows it. During media day at the Rose Bowl a few months ago, a reporter asked Cook if he envisioned a larger role in the offense if Jameis Winston were to leave.
Cook answered diplomatically – Winston, after all, was still on the team at the time –
but acknowledged the reality.
"I'm definitely going to have a bigger role,” he said. “I won't say it's my team, because it's always a team effort, but I'm going to have to take on a bigger role if Jameis leaves."
Cook finished the 2014 season with a bitter taste, having lost two fumbles that helped Oregon take control of the Rose Bowl. Ball security was about the only obvious area of concern for Cook as a freshman – he lost four fumbles in 13 games.
But coach Jimbo Fisher said recently that Cook has handled himself with a veterans’ maturity in the aftermath of any disappointment.
"If you make a mistake – and I'm not saying that's a mistake – you accept it, correct, and don't repeat it, and that's what he did. I think he's very mature. (You say), 'I made a mistake, and I'm going to go work on correcting it.' … Dalvin has had a great offseason.”
In light of Cook’s accomplishments, it’s easy to forget that, through the first half of the year, Mario Pender looked like a prime breakout candidate.
Before suffering an ankle injury at Syracuse in mid-October, Pender showed off a startling quickness and still finished the season averaging five yards per carry despite missing five games. He totaled 206 rushing yards in 2014, 200 of which came in FSU’s first six contests. And his 56-yard run against Wake Forest was FSU’s longest of the season.
If Pender can stay healthy, he’ll at the very least make an effective spell for Cook and could potentially carve a larger role in the offense.
Newcomer Jacques Patrick might have a say in FSU’s running back rotation, too. One of eight early-enrollees taking part in spring practice, Patrick arrives with one of the top pedigrees of any high school player in the nation.
A big back (6-1, 230) who still managed a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, Patrick ran for nearly 8,000 yards and an astounding 103 touchdowns during a four-year career at Orlando’s Timber Creek High.
And, as Fisher has shown often during his tenure, freshmen are welcome to play their way into the lineup.
At fullback, junior Freddie Stevenson has established himself as a fine successor to the likes of Lonnie Pryor and Chad Abram. Stevenson is a fine blocker and has enough speed and physicality to make things happen with the ball in his hands.
Meanwhile, sophomore Jonathan Vickers’ career is still young, but he appears headed for the same utility-man track as Stevenson.
Number of note: Two. After going 16 seasons (1997-2012) without a 1,000-yard rusher, two Seminoles have accomplished the feat in back-to-back years. Devonta Freeman (1,016 yards) in 2013 became the first Seminole since Warrick Dunn to reach the 1,000-yard mark, and Cook followed up with 1,008 last year.