Pender Must Learn to be a True Tailback

Despite putting up big numbers as a junior and sure to do the same as a senior, Cape Coral (FL) Island Coast running back Mario Pender does it operating out of an option-based offense.

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Cape Coral (FL) Island Coast running back Mario Pender reels in a few balls during the morning session on Day 2 of the Jimbo Fisher Football Camp.

It's hard to imagine Cape Coral (FL) Island Coast running back Mario Pender having anything left to prove after his junior season, when he rushed for an astounding 2,200-plus yards and averaged a whopping 13.3 yards per carry for the Gators, but the 6-foot, 190-pounder knows he can still get better.

Pender, already committed to Florida State for the 2012 recruiting class, spends the majority of his time operating as a wing back in an option-based offense, which was all the rage a generation ago but for the most part has been pushed aside in favor of the pass-happy spread. While Cape Coral coach Joe Bowen has incorporated some spread elements into his philosophy, he sees no reason to change too much since his team averaged in the vicinity of 320 yards rushing per game in 2011. Bowen's quarterback, Mike Dumas, only throws the ball a handful of times every Friday and is being scouted as a safety.

Not only does Pender have little experience lining up as a traditional tailback, but also, by his own admission, he got off to a late start preparing his body for the pounding it'll take once he becomes a Seminole.

"Last year, I really didn't hit the weight room too hard," Pender said Thursday on Day 2 of the Jimbo Fisher Football Camp. "So this year, this summer, I've been going 100 percent in the weight room. Hopefully, that will help me out a lot more."

His favorite member of the FSU coaching staff thus far is strength and conditioning guru Vic Viloria, so look for Pender to be closer to 210-215 pounds before long – he wants to work on his "muscle stamina" in particular.

"I've gotta get ready for him," said Pender. "That's why I'm going to take off this summer, so I can go ahead and get ready for him and early enroll [in January] so I'll be ready for him when I get here."

On the recruiting trail, there was never much of a doubt that Pender was going to wear garnet and gold on the collegiate level. He grew up a Florida State fan and worshipped the program's all-time leading rusher, Warrick Dunn. Even with a pair of highly-touted running backs arriving in Tallahassee as a part of the 2011 class, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Bowen says Pender getting a shot to play for coach Jimbo Fisher is the realization of a "childhood dream."

On the field, Pender sees Bowen giving him more opportunities to run out of the I-formation with a fullback in front of him this coming season, and alongside fellow ball carrier and 2013 prospect T.J. Johnson – Miami has already offered him a scholarship – it's not unreasonable to expect Island Coast to average 500 yards per game on the ground this Fall.

"I think Coach used [the I-formation] a little bit in the Spring game," Pender said, "so hopefully we'll see a lot more of it this year."

Needless to say, Pender doesn't run a lot of routes and catches even fewer passes from Dumas, and he can't play for the ‘Noles until he learns to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

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"In practice at school," he said, "I just try to go work out with the wideouts every now and then so I stay familiar with the deep routes downfield and keep my game up with the catching."

Viloria is especially looking forward to his arrival, as Bowen says Pender doesn't need to be coddled and almost enjoys getting yelled it because he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder – the good kind.

"I guess I really figured out when I grew up that, during Pop Warner, I had to [get used to being yelled at]," he said. "It was either that or they let you off the team. So I figured out that made you a better player, so I rather like being yelled at."

Viloria is warming up his vocal cords already.


John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.

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