TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the moment after Derwin James’ left knee collided with that of a Charleston Southern tight end, he didn’t think much of it. If anything, James thought he might have rolled his ankle, but that was hardly enough to keep him down. So he gathered himself, hopped up and looked toward FSU’s sideline to receive the next play call. That’s when he noticed his knee. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel right, either.
“I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird,’” James said. “But I took another step and I kind of felt it. …
“The ref asked if I was alright.”
James left the game on a cart, and an MRI later revealed that he had a tear in his left meniscus.
That news was much better than if he had torn a ligament or broken a bone, but it was still enough to sideline him indefinitely.
James, a sophomore from Haines City, had surgery a few days later and, although he is reportedly healing well, there’s still no timetable for his return.
“I’m taking it day by day,” James said. “Listening to what the doctors and my trainers have been telling me. It’s going well.”
It’s hard to overstate James’ role on the Florida State defense – or the significance of his absence.
A former five-star prospect who earned freshman All-America honors in 2015, James expected even bigger things in 2016.
Pro Football Focus said over the summer that James could be the best defensive player in college football, and he got things started in a hurry by recording his first career interception in FSU’s season-opening victory over Mississippi.
With James out of the lineup, FSU’s defense has struggled to find its footing while facing a gauntlet of some of the top quarterbacks in college football – including Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the presumed Heisman frontrunner, and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, who is statistically the most accurate passer in the nation (76 percent completions).
Next up is a date with All-ACC quarterback Brad Kaaya. And, in two weeks, the Seminoles get a visit from 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers.
Coach Jimbo Fisher said he won’t use James’ injury as an excuse, but even he admitted that James left big shoes to fill.
“We’re losing, if not the best defensive player in the country, one of them,” Fisher said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a great guy that keeps things together.”
It hasn’t been easy for James, either.
“I want to be out there to help my football team,” he said. “I love my team. … When something’s not going right, you want to be the person to put the fire out. Or you want to make a play to help change the game.
“But everything happens for a reason.”
Since he can’t contribute on the field, James has taken it upon himself to help his teammates in other ways.
With the exception of FSU’s game at Louisville, when he was still recovering from surgery, James has maintained his presence on the Seminoles’ sideline, where he can offer insights and encouragement.
James also said that he’s watching more film than ever before, then passing along his observations.
“It’s more like a coaching role for me,” James said.
More than anything, though, the Seminoles say that they get a boost just by having James around.
“His presence is just a different spirit,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “He’s going to make sure everybody’s up. He comes in with a smile on his face, country-talkin’ and that’s just Derwin. … He knows he’s a voice on this team. Everybody respects him, looks up to him. So it’s good that he’s out there.”
Added senior safety Nate Andrews, one of James’ usual cohorts in the secondary: “A lot of guys, when they get hurt, they tend to disappear. But having him around is big because he’s one of the leaders of the defense.
“He motivates me, even though he’s younger than me.”
Still, vocal leadership and motivation can only go so far for a player used to making things happen on the field.
And James readily admits that he’s itching to get back as soon as possible.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “I’m very antsy.
“Whenever the timing is right, I’ll be out there.”