Meet Derwin James, Florida State's secret weapon against Alabama

Go all-access with Florida State football (1:39)

Chris Low talks with Jimbo Fisher about trash talking, Derwin James' return and facing Alabama on Sept. 2. (1:39)

Florida State coaches will tell you Derwin James could start at every position on defense, and they will tell you this with a straight face, as if a 6-foot-3, 211-pound safety moonlighting at tackle is totally normal.

When they see James, they see the possibilities: the physicality, the speed, the strength, the toughness, the competitiveness, the smarts, the instincts. James is a walking matchup advantage, one whose ability to master multiple positions makes him the most versatile player in college football. He's also the most intriguing player heading into Florida State's matchup against No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 2 (ABC & WatchESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Because, quite frankly, the Crimson Tide have no idea where James will line up on any given play.

"I could be in the back, I could be on the line, I could be in the middle," James says with a sly smile. "I could be anywhere."

We are not talking Jabrill Peppers-style versatility, either. What we are talking about is James starting at his natural safety spot. Shifting to cornerback. Playing some linebacker. Lining up somewhere on the defensive line. Definitely taking snaps at nickel. Serving as a spy on a dual-threat quarterback.

Peppers showcased his athleticism as a two-way player at Michigan last season, following in a long line of talented players in that category. James' impact this season has the potential to be transformative. The way Florida State uses him could shift what versatility means in today's game.

"Keep 'em guessing," James says. "Make offensive coordinators hate playing Florida State's defense. I want to keep them on their toes. It's a great thing they don't have any film; they don't know where I'm going to be at, so it's a thing we need and a thing we take notice of going into the season. It's big for us."

What sounds simple involves complexity and nuance that not every player can master. It goes beyond physical gifts. To understand how it works, it is important to look at the way coach Jimbo Fisher approaches recruiting.

Fisher looks for multipurpose players like James, specifically among defensive backs. Based on the way offenses have evolved, games are predicated much more on matchups. Because players now spend so much time in space covering spread teams, bigger players learn different skill sets earlier in their careers. That allows them the ability to play multiple positions beyond defensive back.

In 2013, Florida State incorporated linebacker and safety responsibilities into what it called the "star" position. This in itself is not unique -- many teams have players in a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role. But the Seminoles began to use players with varied body sizes and skill sets in this role.

Lamarcus Joyner became the first player to be showcased as a "star" in 2013. Despite being 5-foot-8, Joyner played bigger than his size and ended up leading the team with 5.5 sacks and finishing second on the team with 69 tackles. His ability in blitz packages changed the way many viewed him as a player.

"He wasn't a tall guy, but he was very physical and very explosive," Fisher said. "He was a violent guy. He loved the contact. As you watch those qualities, you saw an ultimate competitor."

Jalen Ramsey came next, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound track standout who could run a 10.6 in the 100 meters and long jumped 26 feet, 1 inch. His size, speed and physicality allowed him to move into the star role seamlessly. In 2014, he was an All-ACC player with 79 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

In 2015, Ramsey was joined in the secondary by James, ESPN's eighth-ranked player in the country. When Fisher got his first glimpse of James' high school game tape, he thought, "Lord almighty."

James' strength is off the charts for a defensive back. He began weightlifting in the ninth grade; he arrived at Florida State benching 415 pounds. He now squats in the mid-500s. So hearing that he lined up at nose guard in a high school game simply because he wanted to be in on a fourth-down stop does not sound so outlandish anymore. Once coaches saw James could do more than what they asked of Joyner and Ramsey in the star position, they got to work, coming up with specific matchups just for James.

Entering Week 2 of James' freshman season, defensive coordinator Charles Kelly told him FSU coaches needed to find a way to get him on the field. They decided he needed to spy on mobile USF quarterback Quinton Flowers. To do this, they incorporated defensive end into his repertoire.

"I took advantage of that opportunity, and when I saw [Flowers] make a move like he was going to run, I hurried up and went to sack him," James says now. "From there, it got fun. They wouldn't take me out of the game. We started creating new formations for me to get on the field."

A few weeks later, against Lamar Jackson and Louisville, Florida State used James in run support and blitzed him a good bit. He ended up with a sack and forced fumble. But the play that still gets Florida State fans talking is what he did to Florida right tackle Mason Halter in the regular-season finale.

James lined up as a rush end, and trucked the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Halter so hard, Halter ended up on the ground almost instantly.

"It didn't surprise me because he's fast but he's also a very powerful guy," Kelly says. "He's a strong young man, and that's just some of the things that give him a lot of versatility."

James ended his true freshman season with 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Texas coach Tom Herman, whose Houston team played Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in 2015, called him a "grown-ass man."

"Derwin is special," Ramsey says. "He has a true position as a safety and a lot of NFL teams will look at him as 'OK, he's the best safety.' But not only that, he's the best whatever you line him up at. That's not always the case with guys. Yeah, you can line guys up and they can get the job done at those positions, but when you're truly the best at it ... it's clear that he is the best safety in the country. It's clear when he's moving for a blitz package, he is the best at doing that, so really he's totally different than Jabrill Peppers. So versatile on the defensive end and can change the game."

Coaches got to work in the offseason to expand James' role even further, believing 2016 would be bigger, and better.

But James injured his knee in Week 2 against Charleston Southern and was sidelined for the season, a loss that impacted Florida State in more ways than one. Shell-shocked without their leader, the Seminoles lost the following week to Louisville 63-20. James, his leg immobilized, watched the game from his apartment in Tallahassee, dejected, demoralized and angry. Two weeks later, Florida State lost again to North Carolina.

But that would be the worst of it. Florida State ended up beating Michigan in the Capital One Orange Bowl to cap a 10-3 season. James sat next to Kelly on the sideline, in the film room, at practice, taking every opportunity not just to lead but to learn. Often, he would ask Kelly in games, "Coach, what were you thinking when you made this call?"

The injury allowed James to take a step back and truly understand everything the coaches wanted him to do. It allowed him to take full account of every player on the field, along with their unique responsibilities. It allowed him to focus on technique, fundamentals, what your feet and your eyes have to do when you play corner, compared to safety, compared to linebacker, compared to defensive end.

In the spring, he took reps at cornerback, worked more with defensive end coach Brad Lawing and started returning kicks. It became abundantly clear that James had more than just physical tools -- he had the intelligence to process and retain loads of information. He split his time between the defensive end, linebacker, defensive back and special-teams rooms.

"He has the physical tools to do it, but he has the intelligence, too," Fisher says. "People don't realize, you have to be able to understand what's going on around you. Not, let's line up at the position, but to actually play the position. He understands that. I talk to him a lot about letting your athletic ability be the last thing you rely on."

Florida State hopes that starts with Alabama. And what gives the Seminoles an even bigger advantage? James has played in only 15 career games, with 10 total starts. The last time anybody saw him take a snap was nearly 12 months ago.

So what does that mean for what we are about to see?

"Nobody knows," James says. "There's certain people who know, my teammates know, but not everybody knows. I want to show what I can do. I know what I'm capable of, I know what I worked for, and I just know what type of player I can be."

The Crimson Tide, and the college football world, are about to find out.