TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It had been exactly 177 days since Derwin James tore the meniscus in his left knee.
Which means 177 days since he could put on a garnet-and-gold helmet and hit the football field with his teammates.
So then it’s only natural that on Monday afternoon, when James returned to practice, he did so with a grin that could be seen through his facemask.
“It felt great to be back out here with my team,” James said after FSU’s first spring session. “I haven’t played football in about four months, so it felt great to put on a helmet again.’
James’ injury was a massive blow to a Florida State defense that entered the 2016 season with high expectations but initially struggled to find itself in the absence of its star safety.
The Seminoles would eventually rebound and field a defense that finished the season ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed per game.
But, as they embark on the 2017 campaign, the Seminoles have another hurdle to clear: moving on without defensive leaders DeMarcus Walker and Marquez White, both of whom graduated after last season.
Safe to say that James’ return comes at a perfect time.
“His energy is great,” quarterback Deondre Francois said. “His energy makes everyone else want to be better.”
At 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, James is one of the most physically-gifted athletes on Florida State’s roster.
And perhaps the surest sign of his abilities came Monday, when the safety hardly spent any time practicing at safety.
Instead, James worked as a kick returner during the early portion of practice, and he later took reps at cornerback, where the Seminoles are a little light this spring after injuries to veterans Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis.
“He can have the skill set to do anything,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He returned (kicks) in high school and was a great guy. … There are just not many positions he can’t play.”
Indeed, while James is officially a safety, defensive coordinator Charles Kelly will line him up virtually anywhere on the field as situations dictate.
James can play deep to cover opposing receivers or move into the box to support the run defense. And, as a freshman, James’ combination of speed and power made him perhaps the Seminoles’ most feared edge rusher.
No wonder the Seminoles missed him so much last year. Or that they expect big things from him this fall.
“What he’s done in the past, that’s great,” Fisher said. “Gotta go do that again. Which I expect him to do.”
Being away didn’t come easily for James, either. Especially during FSU’s three losses.
“I wasn’t really watching as, ‘What would be different,’” James said. “But, of course, there’s plays in the game that I felt like I could make and help my team.”
Although James of course would have preferred to play last season, he doesn’t consider the year a total loss, either.
He said his time on the sidelines helped him to learn more about the game and see things from a different vantage point.
It also brought about a new appreciation for what he can do on and how fragile a football career can be – a perspective he might not have had as an 18-year-old freshman.
Asked for the biggest lesson learned from his injury, James replied, “Don’t take nothing for granted. Football is a gift.”
But don’t mistake that mindset for a change in James’ approach on the field.
He said that there was no hesitation or reservation regarding his surgically-repaired knee, and he practiced Monday without a brace.
“I just go full force and listen to what the coaches tell me,” James said. “It’s football.”
Next up for James: Re-claiming his reputation as Florida State’s hardest hitter.
He’ll have to wait a little longer for that – the Seminoles won’t put on full pads until later in the spring.
“I’ve been waiting on that a lot,” James said with a smile. “But that will come.”