He might be college football's most freakish athlete, one reason why scouts see a future NFL superstar in Florida State safety Derwin James

By Chase Goodbread | Published Sept. 13, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Long before Derwin James emerged as one of college football's elite talents, before he was a five-star recruit, before the nation knew his name, his mother knew what was coming.

Shanita Russell had no doubt after the realization -- a "vision," she calls it -- that James' name would be in lights, his games would be on television, and his talent would take him to the top. So she took him home.

"Since we were from Haines City," Russell said, "I moved him back there so when they said his name on TV, they said, 'From Haines City, Fla. ...' "

The vision came to fruition two years ago, when James cracked the starting lineup at Florida State as a freshman and established himself as one of the game's most dynamic defenders.

Now, after just two seasons of college football, NFL scouts already have a vision of their own about James. They see a future star; a spectacular athlete who can play multiple positions and transform a defense with a rare mix of talent and charisma.

Working with freakish athletes is nothing new to FSU strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria. Over the last 13 years, from LaRon Landry to Devonta Freeman to Dalvin Cook, he's seen them come and go. And this is how he sums up James: "It'll be some time before I see another one like this. Maybe never."

He's not just talking about James' athleticism -- more on that to follow -- but what the redshirt sophomore can do in a weight room is almost as breathtaking as what he can do on a football field.

"The first time I saw him, he was doing dumbbell presses," Viloria said. "He grabbed the 120s, and I thought, 'You're going to kill yourself, bud.' He sat down and somebody brought him the dumbbells. That grabbed my attention. Here's a true freshman, and somebody's bringing him the dumbbells? I knew he must have earned some respect outside of the building. Then I watched him do it, and he crushed it. But I wasn't going to allow myself to get caught up in it yet."

It wouldn't take long.

A few months later, before James had even played a down for the Seminoles, Viloria posted a video of James leaping clear over a standing man. A close look at the clip shows the prop ducked slightly to avoid contact; an even closer look shows he didn't need to.

James is a chiseled 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, with strength and explosiveness that set him apart even in one of the most talented locker rooms in the country. He can bench press 450 pounds, and he's approached 600 on the squat rack. He's broad jumped 11 feet, 3 inches, which would have ranked him in the top five among more than 300 players at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. You want speed? He was clocked at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Nike Opening coming out of high school.

"There is no flaw," Viloria said of James' athleticism.

The coach grabs two pens off his desk and fires them across his office to illustrate what separates James from others.

"Here are two 4.5s," he says, throwing the first object to represent the more typical athlete. With the second, he hesitates, then flicks the pen with much more force. "Which one was faster? They both crossed the finish at 4.5, but that second (pen)? That's Derwin," Viloria said.

His point? Speed is one thing; initial burst and acceleration are something else. And James has the former, plus the latter.

"He's pretty-looking. He's got one of those body types where you could play him at about seven different positions," said an NFC scout. "He looks most like a strong safety, but he's got the frame to put weight on and be a linebacker, he could be a huge corner. He looks kind of like what Patrick Peterson was coming out. Just a great-looking frame."

Comparisons like that one -- a frame like Patrick Peterson's -- are common for James. But with the versatility to play everything from safety to linebacker to even cornerback comes a wide array of comps, most of which can't, by themselves, do James justice.

Take the Seahawks' Kam Chancellor, the Legion of Boom's enforcer at the strong safety position. He and James are both blessed in the size department, both have reputations as punishing hitters, and both are aggressive in run support. Yet for some, that common comparison falls a bit flat. James is considered the better athlete of the two. Faster, more explosive, more versatile and more agile. Chancellor's place as one of the game's top safeties is secure; he's been named to four Pro Bowls and just signed a contract extension with a $25 million guarantee. But he didn't test especially well as a draft prospect, clocking a 4.60 40-yard dash and a 31.5-inch vertical jump at Virginia Tech's 2010 pro day.

James, however, should test extremely well.

Former Haines City coach Jake Chapman coached James and, before that, Pittsburgh Steelers LB Ryan Shazier at Plantation (Fla.) High, which has produced a handful of NFL athletes over the last decade. Shazier blew scouts away at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, with a 42-inch vertical leap at 237 pounds, and a 10-10 broad jump. A week later, he clocked a blazing 40 at Ohio State's pro day (between 4.35 and 4.41 seconds, depending on whose stopwatch you're using), yet Chapman doesn't hesitate to put James squarely in Shazier's class as an overall athlete. "No question," he said, "the best two athletes I've coached."

Viloria recognizes the difficulty of comparing James with just one player, so he doesn't bother trying. Instead, he assembles a collective cast of the most impressive athletes he's trained in seven years at FSU.

"I think if you take all the attributes of all the best ones, combine it into one, you're getting close to Derwin," Viloria said. "He's got strength like (Nigel) Bradham. He's got the desire to chase the deep ball like (Lamarcus) Joyner, competitiveness like Jameis (Winston). His ability to hit and be strong for a skill player is like Jalen (Ramsey). … His acceleration is freakish; it's that of a Devonta Freeman. … You can keep going down the list."

Of all the praise heaped upon James and his potential as a pro, that might be the highest: that there is no single comparison befitting of what experts see in him. At his essence, he breaks the mold.

"He's a separate entity," said Hall of Fame and former FSU cornerback Deion Sanders. "There aren't too many people who do what he does or have what he has."

The root of James' status as a draft prospect remains his true freshman season of 2015. It was the first extended look scouts had gotten of him before a tear of the lateral meniscus in his left knee ended his sophomore season after just two games.

Without a down of college experience, he cracked a starting defense full of NFL-quality talent, including Jalen Ramsey, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars took with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft. James' impact was immediate and profound.

He was a three-down player with a role in every package -- regular, nickel, dime -- and could easily transition between them. And as a blitzer, he was truly dynamic. Former Seminoles OT Roderick Johnson, now with the Cleveland Browns, claims James could not only blitz with a speed rush, but showed power like a defensive end at just 210 pounds. Seminoles OL Landon Dickerson says nothing about that has changed.

"He is an explosive player," Dickerson said. "He's got strength to go with the speed, and that makes him difficult to deal with."

James finished his freshman campaign second on the team with 4.5 sacks, behind future NFL pass rusher DeMarcus Walker. More telling about his ability to find the ball and get to it before anyone else was how he led the entire defense in solo tackles (52). As scouts closed their evaluations of Ramsey as a versatile defender, they opened them on James, who was every bit as impressive. He took on a level of ownership in the defense that is rare for a freshman, rarer still on a defense as talented as the Seminoles'. Ramsey was the star, but according to one FSU insider, it was James' defense.

After his knee injury in 2016, despite some initial hope he would be able to return to the field toward the end of the season, he was eventually shut down. It wasn't easy news to take. As he recounted his lost season, as well as an embarrassing 63-20 loss to Louisville in the Seminoles' first game without him, the normally affable James dropped his head and winced.

"That was the first time I'd ever had any kind of surgery in my life," he said. "Then to have to watch Louisville on TV and what happened there, that was the hardest."

It was the last time James would be at home on game day the rest of the season. He approached coach Jimbo Fisher about traveling with the team on the road so he could offer his teammates some sideline advice. Fisher obliged, even though James counted against the ACC's travel roster limit of 72 players.

In a two-game sample before he was injured, scouts noticed improvements in his game. He made the first interception of his career against Ole Miss' Chad Kelly in the season opener, and a team-high eight tackles in the Seminoles' 45-34 win. James was able to take a redshirt for 2016 because he played so little, making him a third-year sophomore this past fall. With only two years of college playing experience, he's not shy about his readiness to transition to the pro ranks.

"Physically and mentally, my understanding of the game, I feel like I am ready," James said.

He certainly looked it in FSU's season opener against Alabama, before Hurricane Irma punched a two-week hole in the Seminoles' schedule. Lining up at six different positions (safety, CB, slot CB, LB, edge rusher), James made six tackles, picked up an assisted sack, and was a disruptive presence in the Crimson Tide backfield. He was also robbed of a pass breakup when he came off the edge and deflected a screen pass by QB Jalen Hurts, only to have Hurts catch it for a bizarre self-completion, a 1-yard loss.

It was a clear signal James was back, healthy as ever, and primed for another dominant season in the ACC.

"His athleticism jumps off the charts. His size and physicality is a whole 'nother asset as well," said Sanders. "And he loves the game of football. One of my dear friends, Mario Edwards, works down there (as FSU's director of player development) and can tell me about his intangibles, his practice habits, who he is off the field. All those coincide for a recipe of success."

One of the few concerns scouts have about James is whether he'll be able to play deep in coverage, because Florida State's scheme called for him to play most snaps closer to the line of scrimmage. But just because there won't be much film of James ranging deep in coverage doesn't mean he'll be incapable of it. In fact, the cornerback position might not even be out of reach for him.

"If you put him at corner and you were patient with the technique stuff, he'd be able to do the physical stuff," the scout said. "But with his size, you'd prefer him covering tight ends. It's as hard to find guys to cover tight ends as it is to cover wideouts right now."

There is no shortage of athletes in James' family. Three of his cousins -- Mike James, Vince and Karlos Williams -- already have reached the NFL. His father, Derwin Sr., was a celebrated football player at Haines City High and played at Olivet College in Michigan, but his life would take him to a higher calling than professional football.

"I've got some kids I oversee at a group home. I'm pretty much (combating) human trafficking and dealing with kids who are wards of the state," said Derwin Sr., who on this day is making arrangements to keep a group of children safe from Hurricane Irma. "They have nowhere to go. They're with me."

Only a few minutes into a conversation with James' father, the origin of Derwin Jr.'s leadership qualities becomes clear. The father has been working with kids his entire adult life, starting with his own.

His first football coach was Horace West, who is now a Haines City Commissioner. Nicknamed "Blue", the elder Derwin taught his son to play football the same way he learned it from West -- aggressively, studiously, relentlessly. Haines City defensive coordinator Olin Gee coached both father and son, and remembers them as very similar players.

"His father ran the defense. Blue was a coach on the field, just like Derwin," Gee said. "His dad was a film fanatic, and our captain. He could go sideline to sideline, just like Derwin. He averaged 200 tackles a year. One year, he had about 240."

The All-Polk County linebackers of the day: Blue and former Baltimore Ravens LB Ray Lewis, who played for Haines City rival Lakeland Kathleen High. Derwin Sr.'s football career didn't unfold with all the glory of Lewis' but he raised a son who is on the same golden path. When Derwin Jr., was too young to play tackle football -- until age 6 he was supposed to be playing in a flag division -- his dad allowed him to suit up.

"Derwin had good enough size on him. His mom got on my case when I took Derwin to practice with me," said Derwin Sr., who coached his son in youth leagues. "Even though he wasn't eligible to play, we'd sneak him in a few plays, then bring him out. But he held his own."

The kid, simply, was born to be an athlete.

"You couldn't even take him to the grocery store," his mother says. "Back in the day when they had baskets of balls in the aisles, he would grab one every time. He would jump out of the buggy for one if he had to."

In time, the community began to buzz about the next athlete in the family pipeline, so a lot was expected. The college football community took notice, too; Fisher offered James a scholarship to FSU when he was a 14-year-old high school freshman.

"A lot of times, those (younger) guys, you can't see size potential, but you saw it in him at that age," Fisher said. "He had the size potential and was physically developed. And then you saw the maturity, the athleticism, and you knew -- almost instantly -- this guy was going to be a player and you better start recruiting him now. He had speed, size, intangibles, and when you got around him, his intelligence. ... It was very obvious."

James began his high school career not at Haines City, but at nearby Auburndale. Up until then, he'd never played a down at safety. He'd come through the middle school ranks as an unstoppable offensive playmaker at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. But defense was his only path to the starting lineup at Auburndale.

"They really don't start freshmen on varsity, and there was only one position open; it was safety," James said. "I had never played safety in my life before, but I didn't want to play JV. I wanted to play varsity. So I learned how to play safety. I probably wouldn't be playing safety today if there had been an offensive position open."

In seven years, he went from learning the safety position to being arguably the best one in college football. By the time he'd logged two seasons at Auburndale, his mother's vision had compelled her to move back to Haines City. In his first game for the Hornets, the 2013 season opener at Winter Haven High, he made his presence felt.

"It's the first quarter and I said, 'I don't see what all the hype is about,' " said Haines City athletic director Mel Gables. "Right after that, he laid an NFL hit on this kid. I mean, this kid went flying. And I looked at my friend sitting next to me and said, 'That's what everyone's talking about.' "

Over and above James' status as an elite athlete are leadership qualities that figure to further galvanize his eventual draft standing with NFL clubs. When Viloria expressed uncertainty as to whether he'd ever train another player quite like James, it wasn't just the athleticism to which he was referring; it was also to James' intangibles.

"He'll focus on bar speed and technique when he's trying to get other skill guys to work out with him," Viloria said. "If he really wanted to, he could embarrass those guys and they'd go work out on the other side of the room."

James first met Sanders in the summer of 2016 at Sanders' Prime 21 youth camp, where top college players, pros and former pros serve as instructors for the nation's elite high school players. There, Sanders was impressed by the way he blended in with likes of former NFL greats Aeneas Williams, DeAngelo Hall and Kevin Mathis.

"He was very hands on (with the campers). He was very knowledgeable of the game and his position," Sanders said. "Derwin didn't lay back, he really was involved. I loved it. And he asked a lot of questions to help his own game as well."

Two years ago, Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested draft prospects who train exclusively to improve their combine numbers are doing themselves a disservice because to do so limits football-specific training. For the same reason, the combine is a bit of a sore subject with Viloria. He doesn't see bench press reps of 225 pounds as a true test of strength, nor the 40-yard dash as a true test of speed.

That's why he appreciates a Derwin James workout more than others.

"As a strength coach, it's weird to hear me say this, but I'll kick guys out of the weight room if they're only coming in to make their combine numbers better," he said. "They're combine freaks. Derwin only trains to be a better football player. He runs and gets his body in shape only to chase offensive players. … Sharpening your skill set, that's what the gym is for. And that's why Derwin does it."

The Seminoles tend to rally around James' determination, adopting his methods, learning from his example. Chapman saw much the same thing in James at the high school level.

"He was always the best athlete on the field, but with some guys, it's 'You need me,' " Chapman said. "With Derwin, it was 'I need you. I'm not Superman here. I need you.' Whatever NFL team gets him, they're getting a diamond who is going to make the rest of the team shine."

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