James’ re­turn bol­sters Florida State’s de­fense

Back from in­jury, sopho­more safety is one of na­tion’s best.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Joe Reedy

Many things have changed for thir­dranked Florida State since Der­win James last played in a game. What hasn’t changed is the sopho­more safety’s abil­ity.

James missed most of last sea­son with a knee in­jury and now has a chip on his shoul­der. He is still con­sid­ered not only the team’s best de­fender, but one of the best in the na­tion. He’ll get a chance to prove it when the No. 3 Semi­noles take on top-ranked Alabama on Satur­day in At­lanta.

James took part in spring prac­tices af­ter tear­ing the menis­cus in his left knee last Septem­ber dur­ing the sec­ond half against Charleston South­ern. The 6-foot-3, 211 pound Haines City, Florida, na­tive said he hasn’t had any prob­lems with the knee.

The only prob­lem James has had is keep­ing his emo­tions in check.

“I’m anx­ious to get out there for the first game I still feel like I have some­thing to prove,” he said.

James played in only two games last sea­son, but had an im­pact in both. He had eight tack­les and an in­ter­cep­tion in the win over Ole Miss . Af­ter he was side­lined, the Semi­noles dropped two of their next three games and were ranked last among Power Five con­fer­ence teams in pass de­fense.

The de­fense im­proved dur­ing the sec­ond half of last sea­son and comes into this year with plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence. Florida State was the only school to have two play­ers on The As­so­ci­ated Press Pre­sea­son All-Amer­ica first team de­fense: James and cor­ner­back Tar­varus Mc­Fad­den.

Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban said James is ev­ery bit as good as any­one they have faced in his 11 years at the school.

“This guy’s just a very ag­gres­sive player. He’s got good ball skills. He’s a good tack­ler. Good bl­itzer. Just all around a re­ally, re­ally good foot­ball player,” Sa­ban said.

James said his big­gest take­away from spend­ing last year on the side­lines was get­ting a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the game. Now, he be­lieves he can watch film from a coaches’ stand­point and has a bet­ter grasp on his — and other play­ers’ — re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

De­spite lim­ited ac­tion last year, James comes into the sea­son hailed as the best de­fen­sive player in col­lege foot­ball by a cou­ple of na­tional pub­li­ca­tions. James is ex­pected to be even bet­ter than he was as in 2015 when he started eight games as a fresh­man and was sec­ond on the team in tack­les with 91, in­clud­ing 9.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks.

James has drawn com­par­isons to for­mer Michi­gan stand­out Jabrill Pep­pers be­cause of his ver­sa­til­ity. Be­sides lin­ing up at safety, James has played end in cer­tain pass-rush­ing sit­u­a­tions. He also oc­ca­sion­ally is used as a line­backer or a cor­ner against a slot re­ceiver.

Be­sides play­ing de­fense, James is ex­pected to see time at punt re­turner and could even see a cou­ple plays on of­fense at re­ceiver.

But he’ll likely be needed to make his big­gest im­pact vs. the Crim­son Tide on de­fense.

Florida State has strug­gled against dual-threat quar­ter­backs the past cou­ple sea­sons, but James thinks his re­turn and that the unit has a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the scheme should help against Alabama and Jalen Hurts.

Last sea­son Hurts ac­counted for 3,734 yards of to­tal of­fense and 36 touch­downs. He also had one game where he threw for over 300 yards and rushed for over 100.

Hurts said FSU’s de­fense re­minds him of Alabama’s.

“They’re fast, phys­i­cal, a lot of range, tall. We’re up for a chal­lenge,” Hurts said.

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