TALLAHASEE, Fla. – To state the obvious, the Florida State football team will miss Derwin James when it faces Louisville on Saturday. The sophomore safety is one of the best players on FSU’s roster and potentially one of the best defenders in the nation. As a result, the tall order of corralling Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson got that much taller when James injured his left knee in last week’s win over Charleston Southern.
Forgive them, though, if the Seminoles aren’t ready to wave the white flag.
“I mean (James) is one of the best defensive backs in the country,” junior safety Trey Marshall said. “But we’ve been working all camp and everybody has been playing a lot of positions.
“So I feel like whoever next is going to step up.”
That was a common theme in FSU’s Moore Athletics Center on Monday, from coach Jimbo Fisher’s press conference in the afternoon to player interviews following that evening’s practice.
Yes, James is hard to replace, but both Fisher and the Seminoles believe they have both the depth of talent and the right preparation to handle his absence.
“That’s what we plan for,” Fisher said. “That’s why we practice like we practice. … We kind of, not plan for (injuries), but you put a safeguard around to make sure that all your bases are covered. … We have some great young players that I think well be able to step up and play.”
Florida State has recruited at an elite level since Fisher took over as head coach in 2010, and there may not be a program in the nation that has done a better job of recruiting defensive backs.
FSU has sent seven DBs to the NFL in the last five years, and there are several more on the current roster who could be next in line.
In both 2015 and 2016, the Seminoles signed the top-ranked defensive back recruits in the country (James and freshman Levonta Taylor, respectively).
Sophomore Tarvarus McFadden, a new starter this season, ranked as a five-star prospect a year ago, and a few of his counterparts in the secondary – Marcus Lewis, Calvin Brewton and A.J. Westbrook – weren’t far behind.
Throw in the experience of seniors Marquez White and Nate Andrews (who is expected to return from a calf injury this week), and the Seminoles feel they have reason to be confident.
“We’ve got other players that are going to come behind (James) and do just as good as he does,” junior linebacker Jacob Pugh said. “I trust all of my other players just like I trust them.”
In fact, for all of the depth and versatility in the secondary, it may be a linebacker who best fills James’ shoes on Saturday.
James hovered near the line of scrimmage for much of FSU’s game against Louisville last year, using his speed to ensure that Louisville’s Jackson stayed mostly corralled in the pocket.
It’s a role that could be well-suited for Matthew Thomas, the redshirt junior linebacker that missed all of last season with an injury.
Thomas and James are both 6-foot-3, and, although Thomas checks in about 15 pounds heavier than James (Thomas weighs 227 pounds, James 211), he’s often flashed speed uncommon for a man his size.
“Matt is just unbelievable,” Pugh said. “He can run, he can play the pass, he can do it all.
“I’ve seen him come all the way across the field, pass everybody and make a play.”
Case in point, this play from FSU’s opener against Ole Miss:
Granted, the play itself was not in FSU’s favor. But there probably aren’t many linebackers in the country who can catch an SEC receiver from behind in the open field. For the record, Ole Miss’ Brown clocked a 4.52 40-yard dash at Nike’s The Opening camp, and he’s a former draft pick of the San Diego Padres.
Fisher said Monday that Thomas can play any of the linebacker positions and that, along with Pugh, he allows the Seminoles to try a number of different defensive alignments to help mitigate the loss of James.
“They’re athletic guys that can run in space and play in space,” Fisher said. “And that’s the thing we’re happy about.”
And besides, just because James won’t be on the field Saturday doesn’t mean he won’t contribute to the team’s effort.
Fisher said that, in addition to James’ physical presence, he’s also emerged as an emotional leader for the defense.
He plans to have James on the sideline at Louisville, where James can encourage his teammates as well as offer perspective and insights from his vantage point.
“I think he’ll be such a big part of those guys, on the side of generating them, motivating them, and getting them to step up to the next level,” Fisher said. “He’s one of the few guys that I’ve been around since Jameis (Winston) that has such a unique effect on players in such a positive way. …Those guys will want to play well and do well for him. ”