TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Derwin James is happy to be back on the field, even if it is only spring practice.
Florida State's sophomore defensive back - who many thought would be one of the nation's top underclassmen last season - was limited to only two games after tearing the meniscus in his left knee during the third quarter against Charleston Southern on Sept. 10.
James said he hasn't had any problems with the knee. He isn't wearing a knee brace and is participating in all team drills during the first week.
''I haven't played football (in about six months), so it felt great to put on a helmet again,'' he said.
James' knee surgery revealed no structural damage, and coach Jimbo Fisher was hopeful that James could return for the final month. It didn't happen though. James said it wasn't until after January that he felt like the knee was really 100 percent.
James led the Seminoles in tackles after the first two games and had his first interception in the Sept. 5 win over Mississippi . His absence took a toll as Florida State dropped two of its next three games and struggled against mobile quarterbacks. They also were among the national leaders the first half of the season in giving up pass plays of 20 yards or more before improving.
After going through his first significant injury, James said he has a better appreciation for playing.
''He's been the same Derwin but more mature,'' Fisher said. ''Not that he was immature, but you see him growing in his role as things are going on.''
Coaches and scouts are impressed by the versatility of the 6-foot-3, 211-pound James. His natural positon is safety but James has played corner in nickel packages and can be an edge rusher in some passing situations.
Now James is trying to become successful at one more position - punt returner.
The Seminoles, who were 10-3 last season, have been next to last in punt returns in the Atlantic Coast Conference the past two seasons.
James, who returned punts in high school, said he welcomes the opportunity.
''We'll put the ball the best guys have the best hands and have the best ability to run with it,'' Fisher said. ''There are just not many positions he can't play.''
With the graduation of defensive end DeMarcus Walker, Fisher is also hoping that James can become the emotional leader of the defense. Quarterback Deondre Francois said he already considers James to have that role.
''His energy makes everyone else want to be better,'' Francois said. ''He is the leader on the defensive side and I am the leader on the offensive side. As the two leaders we should be able to lead these guys in the right direction.''
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