TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Houston coach Tom Herman is not liberal with the gesture. It’s the ultimate compliment for a player in a sport where one-fourth of rosters include boys just months removed from cleaning out high school lockers.
Florida State’s Derwin James has earned from Herman the select title of GAM.
“Grown-ass man,” Herman said of James, who he coached against in a Peach Bowl win over the Seminoles. “That dude is smart, quick, rangy, has height, has length, fast, smart. He’s a step ahead and when he hits you, he’s physical. To see all that in a true freshman is real remarkable. There are very few guys you give the name to.
“Anybody in America would take him right now.”
They would take him at safety. They’d take him at defensive end.
Anybody in America? As a 6-foot-3, 213-pound defensive end no less? C’mon, maybe that works in the ACC but how about the SEC? ... Wait, is that him tossing the Gators’ 6-foot-6, 295-pound fifth-year right tackle five yards? OK, sign us up, too.
In James’ first taste of the Florida-Florida State rivalry, which would be a Seminoles defensive showcase, he lined up along the line of scrimmage to blitz Treon Harris. Florida picked up the blitz, a move the tackle might regret in hindsight. James launched the tackle and kept running after Harris in one swift motion, forcing the Gators’ quarterback to bolt from the pocket.
“He’s a freak of nature,” senior safety Nate Andrews said.
Now he’s one of the best returning defensive players in the ACC. When the conference reconvenes in July to kick off the 2016 season and vote on preseason award candidates, at least a few will cast ballots for James. DeMarcus Walker might be the early ACC defensive player of the year in 2016, but the senior’s teammate James could ultimately be Walker’s biggest competition for postseason hardware.
He’s been anointed as the defensive back who will ease the loss of Jalen Ramsey, the former cornerback who is in contention for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. Last season, Ramsey said James surpassed expectations, and that was with James not always comfortable with the defensive playbook and his responsibilities.
As a January enrollee in 2015, James immediately stood out. Not because he looked like a freshman, but because he looked like that as a freshman -- a chiseled 6-3, 200-pound defensive back -- while able to jump over trainers and bench press 405 pounds.
On-field production exceeded the five-star hype in James’ case. Two tackles through the first three games of the season left fans wondering when he would be incorporated into the defense, but he finished 15th in the ACC in tackles per game at seven. He led ACC freshmen with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. The All-ACC selection added two forced fumbles and two recoveries.
“Everyone knew Derwin could play when he came in. He had the demeanor,” senior cornerback Marquez White said. “It was a matter of time for him to get on the field and show what he could do.”
His repertoire includes playing as a defensive end in pass-rush situations. Former Florida State defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Ramsey were skilled blitzers coming off the offense’s edges, but James said Florida State is installing packages for him to play defensive end.
Junior offensive tackle Roderick Johnson, an All-American candidate, doesn’t sympathize with opposing linemen tasked with impeding James this fall. He’s dealt with keeping James out of the backfield for more than a year already.
“When he comes off the edge, he’s coming like a missile. I’m just speechless,” Johnson said. “... He’s much quicker [than defensive ends], very explosive and he can turn from speed into power just like a regular defensive end.”
Assistant coach Brad Lawing, who coached Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, is mentoring James in those defensive end packages.
“He told me there is still a lot to do,” James said as offensive tackles across the ACC began wiping sweat from their brows.
He won’t turn 20 until a month before the Sept. 5 opener against Ole Miss. By the time the teams meet, they might have combined for 10 first-round picks since 2013. James might be more physically gifted than any of them.
“He’s a dude,” Herman said. “He’s bona-fide dude status.”