Derwin James was the 17th pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers.
Quick bio: James is a life-long FSU fan who grew up in Haines City, Fla., and had a tattoo of a Seminole logo added on his left arm during the ninth grade – just shortly after committing to then-coach Jimbo Fisher. James started just half of FSU’s games as a freshman in 2015 but still finished with 91 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After suffering a season-ending meniscus tear in his knee in September, James returned in 2017 and had 84 tackles and two interceptions. He decided to sit out FSU’s bowl game and declared early for the NFL Draft.
Scouting report: Only one safety has been taken in the top 10 picks of the NFL Draft in the last five years (Jamaal Adams was No. 6 by the NY Jets in 2017). Why pick James so high? He is a Swiss Army knife: James can play in the box, rush off the edge or deep. “The versatility of his game is critical,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “And in today’s NFL, which is a pass-first league, when you can drop a safety down on a slot and feel comfortable, that guy is worth his weight in gold.”
NFL Combine results: James ran a 4.47 in the 40, among the fastest times for a safety, and had a 40-inch vertical.
Quoting: ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. compares James to a Seattle Seahawks four-time Pro Bowler: “At his best, James is an enforcer in the mold of Kam Chancellor – he’s not afraid to bring the wood.”
With 17 returning starters, Florida State has few holes to fill after losing an interior defensive lineman, two linebackers and two defensive backs.
But Jimbo Fisher has the program in a position where it’s always thinking a year (or two) ahead in its development and able to anticipate the losses, whether two players are drafted (2016) or 11 (2015).
FSU will be in the top five of most preseason polls which means the talent is not lacking. We take a look at that talent from a positional standpoint and rank those units from deepest to weakest.
1. Secondary: Even after losing the fifth overall pick in the draft (Jalen Ramsey), this position is loaded with future NFL players. We start with the most talented player on defense, sophomore Derwin James, who is garnering All-American talk after forging his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. James showed his athletic ability after taking over at strong safety. He did make freshman mistakes in 2015, especially in games against Georgia Tech and Houston, but he is poised for a breakout season. The group will receive a big boost with the return of Trey Marshall from injury at the nickel, and safety Nate Andrews is back for a fourth year. The only big question mark is who replaces Ramsey opposite cornerback Marquez White. Tarvarus McFadden appears to have the edge. What also separates the secondary is the depth. A lot of programs would like to have talents like Calvin Brewton, Marcus Lewis, A.J. Westbrook and newcomer Levonta Taylor playing every down.
2. Defensive line: This unit shot to the top when DE DeMarcus Walker decided to forgo the draft and return for his senior season. Walker and sophomore Josh Sweat give FSU one of the top end tandems in the country. And the interior isn’t bad either with junior Derrick Nnadi returning after his first year as a starter and Demarcus Christmas ready to replace Nile Lawrence-Stample. Jacob Pugh and Fred Jones provide the primary depth but the position has been hurt by attrition and needs a few more bodies.
3. Running back: One player makes this one of the top units on the team (and in the country) but what keeps it from coming in any higher is the uncertainty behind Dalvin Cook. Cook returns after a record-breaking season and seventh place finish in the Heisman voting and the fullback spot is secure with Freddie Stevenson. But what cannot be totally discounted are the nagging injuries that limited Cook last season and what kind of production FSU will get behind Cook. Jacques Patrick showed flashes as a freshman last season and had a great game against Syracuse when Cook was held out because of an ankle injury. Still, at times he was underwhelming. Ryan Green had a solid spring but the running back turned cornerback turned running back has carried the ball six times in the last two years.
4. Receivers/tight end: The numbers – three receivers with at least 57 catches – are impressive but all agree even more was expected. They all return and the 2014 and 2015 stacked recruiting classes are a year older. The position received a huge boost in the spring with the emergence of Auden Tate. I believe he could become the big (as in 6-5) receiver FSU has lacked since Kelvin Benjamin left. Then there was the maturity and improvement Travis Rudolph showed in the spring. All it will take is one or two more of the young players to emerge to go along with veterans Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield and they could be a dynamite group. As for tight end, Ryan Izzo proved more than capable last year and this, too, is a diverse, deep group.
5. Offensive line: Perhaps the biggest mystery on the team. At times the line was solid last season and at times it looked lost. No question the talent is there and, in fact, some of that talent is in the extraordinary depth this group possesses with 20 offensive linemen on scholarship. But beyond LT Rod Johnson (an All-American candidate and projected first round pick in early mock drafts) a lot has to come together. Coaches are confident LG Kareem Are, C Alec Eberle, RG Wilson Bell and RT Brock Ruble will jell. And the likelihood is they do. But I still need to see it. More than any other position, I believe the offensive line will determine whether Florida State is a true title contender this year.
6. Quarterback: Two years of Jameis Winston seems so far removed. This position remains somewhat of a mystery – and as always will be scrutinized more than any other during camp – for two reasons: The known (senior Sean Maguire) and the unknown (freshman Deondre Francois). Maguire is capable. He was solid, not spectacular after Everett Golson imploded last year and he does deserve a break for his Peach Bowl performance after playing more than two quarters on a broken ankle. But can he lead FSU to the ACC title and playoffs? That answer varies depending on who you are asking. Francois has all the potential and tools but he has yet to take a snap in a college game. Obviously, this position is hugely important and it could turn out to be a strength or a weakness.
7. Linebackers: The Seminoles lost both their starters, although neither was drafted, but still are confident that juniors Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Matthew Thomas will seamlessly step in. Hoskins is more certain after being a key contributor last year with Reggie Northrup limited early from offseason knee surgery and Terrance Smith missing four games later because of an ankle injury. Thomas is not as reliable only because of a checkered history that last limited him to 12 games since signing in 2013 because of suspensions. The position has had depth issues in the past but coaches hope Josh Brown and Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane will solve that this season.
The trophy, presented annually to the defensive impact player of the year, equally recognizes character as well as play on the field and is named in honor of college and pro football hall of famer Ronnie Lott. IMPACT stands for: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.
James, a 6-3, 212 rising sophomore, was named a freshman All-America by The Sporting News, USA Today and Campus Insider last season after finishing with 91 tackles, including 9.5 for losses and 4.5 for sacks. He was graded as the nation’s second-best safety overall in 2015 by Pro Football Focus.
Here is what Fisher said about James during spring practice:
“He just gets it. The physical skills are crazy, he’s unbelievably instinctive but he’s an intelligent guy, a very intelligent person, not just football player. And then he’s a great people person. Derwin’s a fun guy to be around. Guys just flock to him. He has that charisma.
“I get to spend a lot of time with (James and RB Dalvin Cook). They’re seeing the big picture of what I’m always trying to accomplish in practice, not just winning the drills and things like that. That’s where he and Dalvin and some of those older guys are really incorporating these young guys in what we’re trying to accomplish when I challenge some of those guys, when I really get on them or when I do a drill.”
EBERLE ON RIMINGTON WATCH LIST
Center Alec Eberle was named to the Rimington Trophy Spring Watch List. Eberle, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, is one of 57 centers on the list. He played in 10 games last season including starting the final six games of the year.
ORLANDO – As far as spring game goes, Florida State’s was as about as good at it gets.
The Garnet and Gold teams each scored on their final two drives and the game ended 24-24. Jimbo Fisher was very pleased with the spring finale, a stark contrast from the way spring started when Fisher ripped into his team what he called the worst practice any of his teams had since he became a head coach.
The Seminoles had plenty of breakout performances but here is what we learned.
QB Sean Maguire will be pushed to keep his starting job
Maguire, the senior who is recovering from surgery on his ankle, watched FSU’s freshmen quarterbacks close the gap on the competition. Redshirt Deondre Francois and early enrollee Malik Henry dueled to the end, each leading their teams on two scoring drives in the final five minutes. Francois was 20 of 33 for 246 yards and two interceptions. Henry was 15 of 22 for 205 yards and a slow start in which his Garnet team did not have a first down in the first half. Both tossed two TD passes. “Sean will be right there and he’ll go back up to No. 1 and they’ll all compete for it,” Fisher said. “They’re all going to compete for it in fall camp. I’m anxious to what we can put in that mix the better.”
WR Auden Tate is for real
One of the biggest disappointments last season was that none of the receivers behind Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield and Jesus Wilson emerged. Well, now there is a fourth member of the top tier, 6-5 Tate, who had six catches for 100 yards and two TDs. The most impressive was a play in which he ran the wrong route, but kept moving, headed down the sideline and leaped to catch the throw from Francois, giving the Gold a 21-17 lead. The catch was pure Kelvin Benjamin, who by the way is the player to whom Tate is drawing the most comparisons. “Auden made a phenomenal catch,” Fisher said. “The play itself was phenomenal. That was a great play. But you saw his body size, you see what he has a chance to be and he’s got to get better. He’ll keep polishing those routes but that big body and those hands, he can be a weapon for us.”
Derwin James is an All-American in the making
James, the strong safety, made a name for himself last season making several freshman All-American teams and even being touted by some as the best freshman in the country. Now he has taken the next step this spring not only on the field but as a leader. James was all over the field on Saturday. But as much as his physical ability, Fisher continues to praise James for the way he has taken hold of the leadership role. “He just gets it,” Fisher said. “The physical skills are crazy, he’s unbelievably instinctive but he’s an intelligent guy, a very intelligent person, not just football player. And then he’s a great people person. Derwin’s a fun guy to be a round. Guys just flock to him. He has that charisma.”
Ryan Green is back where he belongs
The rising junior made the switch back to running back after spending a season at cornerback and looks as though he never left. Green gained a game-high 84 yards on 16 carries. And although the 5-11, 205-pound green appears as if he’s too small to plow through the middle and will only beat you on the edge, he showed he’s also capable to picking up the tough yards. Green and Jacques Patrick will enter camp battling for the most playing time behind Dalvin Cook. “It’s just natural,” Green said. “I know how to make people miss, I can catch out of the backfield. I run hard. I just feel like it’s the way to go.”
Ricky Aguayo ready to step into some very big shoes
Ironically, those shoes belong to his brother, Roberto, who concluded his historic career last season by joining Deion Sanders as the only two FSU players to be named to at least one All-America team three straight years. Ricky, a true freshman who enrolled early, got off to a good start as his brother’s successor by nailing both of his field goal attempts, from 45 and 46 yards, the latter coming with four seconds remaining and his team trailing by three points. Aguayo hit a low line drive that cleared the crossbar by feet. “What Ricky did at the end of the game was special,” Fisher said. “To come in in that situation, tie the game, you never know. We could have that during the season.”
“He was a real dominant player at nickel,” Fisher said. “I think he’s just as good at safety as he is nickel but I think he can be good at both positions. He’s a real good football player. It was significant when he went down.”
Marshall said the toughest part about last season was how his and the team’s season ended.
“I was hurt really,” he said. “I had put in a lot of work to perform and to help my team in any way I can. It hurt.”
And although FSU found help from an unexpected source when walkon Javien Elliott stepped in as the starter the rest of the season, the defense missed the versatile Marshall, who was named the ACC’s defensive back of the week two weeks prior to the injury.
Marshall took over the position after spending his first few years as a safety. He even started one game at safety last season before the injury. He said coaches are rotating several players at different positions in the backfield this spring trying to find the right fits.
“We all rotate from safety, star, corner,” he said. “Just (if) anything happens, we can all play a different position.”
In the end, though, Marshall, James (strong safety) and Marquez White (corner) are virtual locks to start with more competition for the free safety and other cornerback spots.
Still, Marshall likes what he’s seen so far.
“We have guys returning, we have younger guys that are going to step up,” he said. “I know they’re going to step up. I feel like we can be the best (secondary) in the country.”
Cornerback Stanford Samuels of Fort Lauderdale continues to list Florida State, Georgia and Michigan as his leaders, but most believe the Seminoles are a clearly ahead of the pack.
Samuels, whose father Stanford Samuels Jr. played at Florida State from 2000-2003, recently spend four days in Tallahassee.
“It is always good to get a chance to get up here and get a chance to watch practice, interact with some of the players and get to interact with some of the coaches more,” Samuels told reporters following his visit. “Getting to know some of the coaches on a bigger level and getting a chance to spend some more time with some of the players and getting a chance to get up here and watch practice again.”
“It is just building more into the trust and the relationship we already have,” Samuels said. “Just watching (Kelly) coach and watching him teaching those guys, it is great. I want a coach, because I’ve always had my dad (as a coach), I want a coach that actually knows what he is talking about, that actually knows how to teach the craft and knows how to teach what he wants us to do.”
Samuels has formed a strong bond with safety Derwin James.
“Once you meet that person and spend time around them. … When it’s someone that’s a baller like you or someone that loves the game like you do, you’re going to connect and that’s how it’s been from the get-go,” Samuels said.
Samuels also spoke with Jimbo Fisher.
“It was just more of a chance to get the whole picture,” he said. “Just get a chance to see the city a little bit. A chance to hang out, not just come for one practice. Just get a chance to get the feel of the city. Everything.”
Samuels visited Georgia before coming to FSU. He also mentions Maryland and Oklahoma.
“There’s not a favorite, there’s a few schools still in there,” he said. “Florida State, Georgia, Michigan is still in it. There’s a couple more schools in there, but that’s pretty much it right now.”
Samuels said he could make a decision by the end of the spring.
Florida State’s spring practice starts Wednesday and concludes with the annual spring game April 9 in Orlando.
The Seminoles are coming off their fourth consecutive 10 win season (10-3) in what many labeled a rebuilding year. The expectations are even higher for Jimbo Fisher’s squad in 2016 with 16 returning starters, including the entire offense.
We will break down each position until the team hits the practice field. Today, we take a look at the secondary.
Projected starters: SS: SO Derwin James. FS: SR Nate Andrews; CB: SR Marquez White, SO Tarvarus McFadden; Star: JR Trey Marshall.
Key backups: FR Carlos Becker, SO Calvin Brewton, SR Ryan Green, JR Malique Jackson, SO Marcus Lewis, FR Levonta Taylor, SO A.J. Westbrook.
In conclusion: Some interesting battles will take place during the spring for Ramsey’s starting spot and the starting free safety spot held last season by Lamarcus Brutus. McFadden is long (6-2) and has the skills to be a dominant corner. But Lewis (6-1) also got some experience last season and will be in the mix. Andrews has been reliable (and great find coming out of high school as a three-star prospect) during his three years and had 18 starts before settling into the role as the sixth defensive back last year when FSU went to its ‘money’ package. Coaches also will be looking to see how Marshall responds after missing more than half the season.