TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State safety Derwin James has been widely praised for his versatility -- not because he plays both ways, but because he can do virtually anything on defense.
In his return to football this spring, James has put even more on his plate. In addition to being used in packages as a defensive end and linebacker, James has practiced his fair share at cornerback. With starter Tarvarus McFadden out this spring and James eager to help, Florida State coaches figured, "Why not?"
“What we’re trying to do now is build his library of knowledge, of all the different positions and what we want him to do,” coach Jimbo Fisher said recently. “You don’t always use all the books in the library. You only pull 'em out when you need them.
“I wanted him to have that information so when we pull that book out, he knows how to play corner, he knows how to play safety, he knows how to play rush end -- so we’ll mix and match him where we think we can get matchups. But we had to do it now and add those things to it, or we wouldn’t be able to.”
Florida State coaches first figured out James could excel at cornerback during preseason camp in 2016, when he volunteered to play the spot to help with depth during practice after a few players went down with injuries.
James played all his first-team reps at safety, then took all the second-team reps at cornerback. “All of a sudden, he’s breaking on balls, and after about a practice he looks like he’s been there forever,” Fisher said. “Maybe there’s a niche you can use him there when you have to.”
Last season was supposed to be his breakout year, after he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a true freshman. But James sustained a season-ending lateral meniscus tear in his left knee against Charleston Southern in Week 2.
The news was not easy for James to take. It was the first time in his athletic career -- dating to age 4 – that he had missed time because of an injury. James wanted to target a return against Clemson in late October. He was trying to make quick moves and cuts in Week 4.
“But the doctors were telling me to slow down a little bit,” James said. “It was real smart to take a redshirt last year because I gave it time to all the way heal up. If I would have come back, I don’t think I would have been 100 percent, so I think we made the best decision.”
For the first eight weeks of rehab, James focused on getting the flexibility back in his knee with quadriceps stretches, calf raises and more exercises. “Basically reprogramming all the muscles,” James said. From Weeks 8-12, James began focusing on cutting and change of direction. During the next phase, he went on an anti-gravity treadmill and worked on jogging, shuffling and backpedaling. By the time the Seminoles were doing bowl preparation, James was back on the field, running without fear.
Currently, he wears no knee brace and has no plans to wear one, either.
“I feel like my knee is stronger than the other one," James said, "because I worked so many muscles that I didn’t work in the past and I just focused on the muscles around it, and I feel like it’s stronger."
As for his added responsibilities, James loves the challenge, mostly because he loves being able to play aggressively. And he already has done so against the Seminoles’ best receivers, including Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate.
“At safety, I’m the last line of defense. At corner, I know there’s a safety behind me so I can be way more aggressive,” said James, who'll be a redshirt sophomore come fall. “There are different steps and different techniques. I can’t look at the quarterback anymore. At corner, I have to look at the receiver.”
Beyond getting more reps at cornerback, James also has been working this spring as a kick returner. To be sure, James will still start at safety. But how the Seminoles use him in various roles on defense will be one of the most intriguing storylines to watch on a team with championship aspirations.