It’s a matter “of course” for the Florida State Seminoles this season.
Of course, Florida State University’s chances for a national championship begin with the quarterback. Right now, due to injury, it’s up to redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, whose predicted greatness must show up sooner rather than later.
Of course, when examining the ultimate weapons of any top team, FSU shoots near the top of the list due to the presence of junior running back Dalvin Cook, a favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
Of course, when it comes to the Seminoles, their best teams usually have an impressive, versatile defense — this season is no different.
Not as obvious is FSU’s foremost game-changer. He’s not a quarterback. He’s not a running back. Yet, you can bet that opposing offenses are watching film and game-planning for ways to contain him — if he can be located.
He’s sophomore safety Derwin James. He’s not exactly a secret, already being named to some preseason All-American teams and getting mention as one of the nation’s best defensive players.
There might normally be concern in FSU’s secondary, given that cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the NFL Draft’s fifth overall pick, must be replaced. Ramsey’s absence will be felt, but James — 6-foot-3, 213 pounds — is ready to step up. Actually, he already has stepped up, leaping high above the crowd, distinguishing himself as a unique talent.
He has mostly lined up at free safety, but he might go to the slot/nickel position. You could see him at cornerback … or perhaps somewhere in the box, looking much like a strong safety or outside linebacker.
How does a defensive back generally get noticed or make an all-star team? You guessed it: interceptions.
Know how many picks James had in his true freshman season of 2015?
Yet, his statistics are amazing. Despite not starting until the sixth game, he had 91 tackles (9.5 for a loss) to rank top among FSU’s returning players. He had 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The lingering memory is his 14-tackle performance against Houston in the Peach Bowl.
He’s a lockdown cover man who revels in the dirty work. He creates more havoc for the quarterback than most defensive ends and outside linebackers.
It’s difficult to define his position because he’s everywhere.
James just turned 20 — not far removed from his Central Florida high-school career with the Haines City Hornets — but he’s already on the preseason watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Like any self-respecting FSU defensive back, James plays with an unmistakable swagger.
“He’s a fun guy to be around,’’ Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He has that charisma. Guys just flock to him.’’
It’s more than colorful trash talk, though. It’s pure performance.
“He just gets it,’’ Fisher said. “The physical skills are crazy. He’s unbelievably instinctive, but he’s an intelligent guy and a very intelligent person, not just (a smart) football player.’’
The obvious comparison is with Ramsey, his teammate last season, but James is already drawing parallels with some of the best defensive backs in FSU history. That’s really saying something, considering a Seminole legacy that includes Lamarcus Joyner, Tay Cody, Clifton Abraham, Corey Sawyer, Terrell Buckley, LeRoy Butler and Deion Sanders.
Good company, indeed.
Improbably, the Seminoles haven’t had a defensive back quite like James. It seems he’s just getting started. He is already considered one of college football’s luminaries.
He’s also a huge reason why FSU has a shot at going all the way.