TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Derwin James knew why he kept getting the same answer. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from asking trainers and doctors to do more as last season wore on. “I had to get used to the word ‘no’ during the rehab process,” the Florida State safety said.
James had never spent any significant time away from football because of an injury, and he didn’t know how to handle it. To make matters worse, the Seminoles’ defense buckled in the immediate aftermath of the left knee injury James suffered in the second half of Florida State’s win against Charleston Southern on Sept. 10. Besides being a human Swiss Army Knife who could play free safety, strong safety, cornerback, outside linebacker and rush off the edge, James had emerged as the player everyone on the defense wanted to follow. His injury had serious schematic ramifications, but it also had dire intangible consequences. When the Seminoles allowed 63 points in a loss to Louisville, 35 in a win at South Florida and 37 in a loss to North Carolina in the weeks immediately following James’s injury, it became obvious how much Florida State missed the Haines City, Fla., native.
But the Seminoles’ medical staff and coach Jimbo Fisher decided soon after James tore cartilage that James wouldn’t return during the 2016 season. To do so might cause damage that could cut short what could be a much longer football career. So no matter how much James begged, he had to wait. And while sitting out made James miserable and forced the defense to make some uncomfortable adjustments, the period may wind up helping the 2017 Seminoles.
James spent a season standing with the coaches and came away with a different view of the game. “I learned a lot on the sidelines,” James said. “You actually see what the coaches yell at you about.” Meanwhile, a young secondary—robbed of the cheat code who single-handedly forces offenses to alter game plans— suffered initially but grew up as the season progressed. This spring, a healthy James has been added back to that group. The result is… Neo from The Matrix?
“The game has slowed down so much for me just by watching it for a year,” the 6-3, 211-pound James said. “I’m seeing things before they happen.” That’s a terrifying thought for opposing quarterbacks, because James was a formidable enough foe as a freshman in ’15. That year, he racked up 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss (4.5 of them sacks), two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. According to him, he hadn’t even learned the defense yet. “I didn’t even know our calls my freshman season until the Syracuse or the Florida game,” James said. “And that was the end of the season.”
That’s what excited James so much about last season. He understood the calls. He could bark them with confidence between plays. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, meanwhile, could tailor the way he used James to fit the opponent. He could roam in center field. He could lock down a receiver. He could start plays at linebacker depth and either rush or drop back in coverage. He could spy a mobile quarterback. (For example, a certain Floridian who plays at Louisville.) Or he could line up on the edge and chase the quarterback. And if an offensive lineman stood in his way, then that lineman might have wound up on his backside like Florida’s Mason Halter in Gainesville in ’15. “You hope he doesn’t come,” said Seminoles tight end Ryan Izzo, who frequently has to block James in practice. “But when he comes, you’d better have your stuff ready.”
James, who has been one of Florida State’s strongest players since the moment he stepped on campus, plans to do all that now that he’s healthy again. Healing completely was the reason James kept hearing “no.”
James injured the knee while making a tackle along the sideline in the third quarter of Florida State's Sept. 10 game against Charleston Southern. He realized that the angle he’d taken to bring down tight end Qua-Vonn Scott might result in a collision that would produce a targeting penalty that would have gotten James thrown out and suspended for the first half of the Louisville game. So James thrust out his left leg to slow himself down and change the impact point to Scott’s chest. He made the tackle, but cartilage in his left knee tore and flipped over. At first, James thought he’d rolled his ankle. Then he realized the problem was in his knee. “It feels like a door jam,” James remembered thinking. “It just feels stuck.” He stayed on the field, trying to will his leg to be OK. Finally, he realized he couldn’t keep playing.
Doctors could have removed the torn cartilage—which acts much like a shock absorber on a car—and James might have missed only two games. But for the cartilage to heal completely, it must be sewn back together. Then the knee requires rest while it heals. Florida State’s medical staff chose to sew the cartilage back together to minimize the risk of chronic knee problems in the future. That meant James would come back 100 percent, but he probably wouldn’t be back for the remainder of the season. “He’s going to play a long time,” Fisher said of James. “If it was my son, I wouldn’t have wanted it [removed].”
Fully recovered, James has resumed all the defensive duties he once had. He’s also returning kicks. If Fisher will consent, James also would like a role on the offense. “We’ve talked about offensive roles like receiver to give defenses a different look,” James said. “But I told him I can block, too.” Of course he said that. James loves contact. While playing for Haines City High, James noticed on film that an opposing center was slow coming out of his stance. So James asked his coaches if he could play nose tackle. They were initially skeptical, but after they watched James blow past Haines City’s center in practice, James got his shot to play on the defensive line.
Offensively, he could play receiver. Or tailback. Or tight end. Or as a wildcat quarterback. In fact, offensive line is the only place James’s teammates believe he might struggle. But not for the reason you might think. “He’d be trying to be too aggressive,” safety Trey Marshall said, “and somebody would hit him with a finesse move.”
Given that Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year as an outside linebacker/kick returner/tailback, James certainly seems capable of playing his way to New York. Back at full strength, the only limit to what James can do is the Florida State coaching staff’s imagination.