TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Just moments after Florida State’s season ended in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a reporter asked freshman safety Derwin James if he considered himself to be a leader.
“Oh,” James said without missing a beat, “yes sir.”
Which is great news, because, with junior Jalen Ramsey set to depart for the NFL, FSU has a job opening for a leader, both on the field and in the locker room.
James seems like an obvious choice to fill Ramsey’s shoes. The two are fairly similar physically (Ramsey stands at 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, James a slightly bigger 6-3, 204), each can play multiple positions in the secondary, and, perhaps most important, each plays with an obvious surly disposition.
“Derwin is going to be himself, just like me. And I respect that 100 percent,” Ramsey said before the 2015 season. “He’s going to go out there and play. He’s going to talk. If you don’t like it, oh well. It’s not going to stop him from what he’s doing.
“Derwin reminds me a lot of myself.”
James then went out and proved Ramsey right over the next 13 games.
He finished with 91 tackles, which was just three behind senior Reggie Northrup for the team lead, the third-most ever by an FSU freshman and by far the most among FSU’s returning defenders.
Throw in 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, and it’s clear that James was a force in 2015 while playing with a pace that sometimes masked any freshman growing pains.
“Derwin works extremely hard,” FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. “He’s an extremely talented young man. These (other) guys will tell you – he came in with absolutely no expectations. Did not want anything given to him. He worked hard and he earned everything he’s gotten.”
Even more impressive than James’ numbers, though, was the way he compiled them.
The box scores don’t show how James bowled over Florida’s Mason Halter, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound right tackle, on the way to forcing an errant throw from UF quarterback Treon Harris.
Or how he closed in on a scrambling Jacoby Brissett, caught the NC State quarterback in mid-air, and brought him down with a body slam that would make the Macho Man proud.
Or how, against Louisville, he forced a pass break-up and tackle for loss – on the very same play.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” Ramsey said.
“He’s a freak of nature,” junior defensive end DeMarcus Walker added.
And, bad news for FSU’s opponents, he’s hungry for more.
A former five-star, consensus top-five recruit from Haines City, Fla., James is used to making an impact. And he puts on no false modesty about his freshman year. He knows he got off to a fine start, but he can also look back and see plenty of room for growth.
“I made a lot of plays, but I left a lot of plays out there, too,” James said. “So that just comes with experience. I feel like each week I’m learning more.”
Part of that learning process included simply coming to grips with the overall speed and talent level in the college game.
With that five-star pedigree, James far more often than not was the most gifted player in every game he played as a high school prospect.
That dynamic changed in a hurry once he got to Florida State.
“In high school, I got away with just playing off of athleticism,” James said. “In college, everybody is good. Every opponent you face, anybody can beat you at any moment. I feel like (success in college) is more technique-wise versus, in high school, I just was more athletic than my opponent.”
If his performance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is any indicator, James learned his lesson.
In the face of Houston’s up-tempo attack, James had perhaps his best game of the season, finishing with a career-high 14 tackles (including nine solo stops), two tackles for loss, a sack and a pass break-up.
And with his first season behind him, James is already taking the reins and leading the charge into next year.
“I feel like we’re going to go hard this offseason,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to have a good chance to have a pretty good year next year, with the talent we’ve got coming back on offense and the guys that will be able to fill in for the guys that are leaving (on defense), we’ll be pretty solid.”