PINEHURST, N.C. — ACC players don’t get dolled up for media days. While their counterparts in other leagues rock swagged-out suits and colorful bowties, ACC players usually sport team-specific golf shirts. This year, however, Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey added some flair to his media-days ensemble: a pair of half-inch gold earrings shaped like crosses.
During ACC media days last month, Ramsey sat at the edge of radio row inside Pinehurst Resort. Asked to recall a decision made more than two years ago—flipping his commitment from USC to Florida State on National Signing Day in 2013—Ramsey could’ve simply pointed to his earrings.
“It was really just a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment,” Ramsey says. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Ramsey, of course, didn’t credit his arrival at Florida State simply to his faith. Prayer played a role, he says, but a number of factors came into play. The birth of his niece, Camille, made him want to stick closer to his native Nashville. Ramsey also formed a bond with Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher and former safety Ronald Darby during his official visit in Tallahassee.
But what got Ramsey to Florida State doesn’t matter nearly as much as the impact he has on the Seminoles’ defense. The junior has grown into one of the biggest physical freaks in college football. Widely expected to test the NFL waters after this season, Ramsey looks like a bona fide first-round pick.
Ramsey’s penchant for turning heads started as a high school prospect at Brentwood Academy, located just outside of Nashville. A consensus five-star recruit and the top-ranked player in Tennessee in the class of 2013, Ramsey compiled 95 tackles, four tackles for loss and three picks as a senior in ’12.
Brentwood football coach Cody White spent 17 years as a high school coach in Texas, including a stint at Odessa Permian, the school made famous by the book Friday Night Lights. But White puts Ramsey in a class of his own, in terms of talent. “He’s the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” White says, “and maybe ever will.”
Despite his immense football talent, Ramsey might have made his biggest impact on the track, where he set Brentwood records in the high jump (6’ 7”) and triple jump (46’ 7.5”) and a Tennessee state record in the long jump (25’ 3.25”). One spring White witnessed Ramsey practicing jumps in the school’s sand pit. With each leap, Ramsey seemed to inch closer and closer to the pit’s edge. So White called an audible, moving his star’s launching point about three feet back from the regular spot.
“We were afraid he’d hurt himself,” White told SI.com in a phone interview. “I thought, jeez, there’s not one thing he can’t do.”
Ramsey arrived in Tallahassee with a starting mentality —“I was coming in to take someone’s spot, to put it out there bluntly,” Ramsey says—and that’s precisely what he did. In the 2013 opener against Pittsburgh, Ramsey became the program’s first true freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders in 1985. Two games later he shifted to safety after then-starter Tyler Hunter went down with a season-ending neck injury. The versatile Ramsey thrived, starting all 14 games for Florida State’s national championship-winning defense and earning Freshman All-America honors.
ACC players to watch in 2015
Everett Golson, Florida State QB
Golson transferred to Florida State this spring after spending four years at Notre Dame and is competing for the starting quarterback job. He led the Fighting Irish to the national title game as a redshirt freshman and played well to start last season before committing a number of costly turnovers as Notre Dame finished with a 7-5 record.
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech QB
Thomas threw and ran for over 2,800 combined yards combined last season, guiding the Yellow Jackets all the way to the ACC title game and an Orange Bowl victory. With running backs Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins gone, Thomas will have to shoulder even more of the offense in 2015.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB
Watson missed five games last season due to injuries, including Clemson's Russell Athletic Bowl victory while he recovered from a torn ACL. Watson is said to be ahead of schedule in his rehab and should build on a true freshman season in which he threw for over 1,400 yards in eight games.
James Conner, Pittsburgh RB
Conner established himself as a workhorse back for the Panthers in 2014, carrying the ball 298 times fore 1,765 yards with 26 touchdowns. He's in line for more opportunities to run the ball this upcoming season.
Jalen Ramsey, Florida State DB
Ramsey enters his third year at Florida State as one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Ramsey started as a true freshman on the Seminoles' 2013 national championship squad and has only improved since. It would be a surprise if quarterbacks test him often.
Brad Kaaya, Miami QB
Kaaya was tasked with restoring The U as just a true freshman, and he performed well even as the Hurricanes fell short of expectations. The quarterback threw for 26 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions, amassing over 3,000 yards. But Kaaya will have to be even better as a sophomore to rally the Hurricanes, who lost four in a row to end 2014.
Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech CB
Fuller enters his third season at Virginia Tech as a shutdown corner. He recorded six interceptions in his true freshman season in 2013, so teams hardly threw at him last year. Although the lack of opportunities may limit his statistical production, Fuller's dominance is undeniable.
Jacoby Brissett, N.C. State QB
The former Florida passer was given the keys to the Wolfpack offense last season after sitting out 2013. Brissett responded with 23 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards combined running and throwing. His talent as a dual-threat helped N.C. State improve by five wins last season and could make the Wolfpack a tough conference foe in '15.
Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh WR
Boyd has been a menace since stepping onto the field as a true freshman in 2013. He's caught at least 78 passes in each of his first two seasons and has 15 receiving touchdowns in his career. A threat as a kick and punt return too, the Pitt receiver averaged 148.3 all-purpose yards per game last year.
Roberto Aguayo, Florida State K
Aguayo has been lights out since 2013, when he won the Lou Groza award as a redshirt freshman. After hitting on 27-of-30 field goals last year (not a single miss came inside of 40 yards), the Seminoles kicker passed up on a chance to enter the NFL draft early.
Last season Ramsey started another 14 games at nickel back, or “Star,” which he describes as “a little bit of corner, a little bit of safety and a little bit of linebacker.” The sophomore went on to record 79 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss en route to All-ACC first team honors. Ramsay says his first two seasons have made him a Swiss army knife in the ‘Noles’ secondary. “I literally know every position on our defense,” he says.
This off-season Ramsey continued playing musical chairs in the defensive backfield and switched back to cornerback. But he doesn’t consider the move much of a transition. In fact, he embraces cornerback as his natural position.
“Everyone has forgotten that I came into college as a corner,” Ramsey says. “I don’t look at it as a big change. I’m just going back to my old self.”
Ramsey’s latest move comes, in part, due to necessity. Florida State lost Darby and fellow starting cornerback P.J. Williams to this spring’s NFL draft. Darby and Williams earned second- and third-round draft selections, respectively, after combining for 117 tackles and 14 pass breakups last fall. Even with returnees like Hunter and fellow safety Nate Andrews, as well as the arrival of hyped freshman safety Derwin James, Ramsey enters 2015 as the unquestioned leader on defense.
He hopes that defense can shake off disappointment. Like many of his teammates, Ramsey had never lost a college game prior to last season’s Rose Bowl semifinal, when Oregon overwhelmed the ‘Noles, 59–20. Ramsey doesn’t like to dwell on the topic. “It was humbling,” he says.
Ramsey spent most of the off-season working on his leadership from the corner position, which is more challenging than most understand. From his “Star” role, Ramsey could see the whole field. That’s not the case on the edge.
“At corner, you kind of have to focus on your side and your job,” Ramsey says. “It is a little challenging, but it’s something I’d been working on this spring.”
Extra work doesn’t bother Ramsey. If it did, he wouldn’t waste time as a member of Florida State’s track and field team. Ramsey is a three-time All-ACC selection in track, where his best mark in the long jump (26’ 1.75”) earned him a third-place finish at the NCAA indoor championships last spring.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher calls Ramsey a “gym rat” and says he often mistakes Ramsey for an assistant coach based on extra time in the football facility. On the practice field, Ramsey makes teammates pay if they slack off.
“If someone doesn’t jump in there, but it’s not [Ramsey’s] rep, he hopes somebody screws up so he can run back out there and take three more reps,” Fisher says.
Ramsey’s football talents weren’t always limited to defense. He played receiver and running back at Brentwood, catching 31 passes for 676 yards with nine touchdowns. White says his strategy was to keep his star on the field as much as possible.
The higher risk of injury means Fisher is unlikely to throw Ramsey in on offense any time soon, but the cornerback thinks his big-play potential—he boasts a 40-inch vertical and 4.54 40-yard-dash time—could come in handy. “I’ll joke with coach Fisher, ‘Put me in in the goal line, I can do a jump ball!’” Ramsey says. “No one is going to out-jump me.”
If Ramsey stuck to offense, “he’d be a first-round draft pick,” White says. But the junior doesn’t need to change to make that projection a reality. SI.com’s Chris Burke slotted Ramsey as the 15th overall pick in his 2016 NFL mock draft in May. That’d rank the Seminoles star third among NFL-bound defensive backs behind Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller and Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III. If Ramsey shines in his transition to cornerback this year, he could go even higher.
But Ramsey wants more than an NFL future. He wants to cap his Florida State career on a high note. The junior hated the taste of losing in the College Football Playoff, and his ‘Noles enter the year with a chip on their collective shoulder after being picked to finish behind Clemson in the ACC in a preseason media poll. Now it’s up to Ramsey to help carry Florida State back to the top.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Ramsey says. “I feel like pressure is what you make of it. I’m just going to go out and do the best I can, just do what I can do, and I’ll be happy with myself.”
at Boston College
at Wake Forest
at Georgia Tech