BEAVERTON, Ore. — The best high school football players in the country have come here to The Opening, Nike's mega-summit for college football's stars of the future, and they can't take their eyes off of him. Every move he makes, they follow. Every step. Every smile. Every bit of guidance, football or otherwise.
Wearing street clothes as he patrols the impeccably manicured fields of the luxurious Nike campus, Florida state safety Derwin James has them completely mesmerized.
As a junior and senior in high school, James was twice named to the All-Tournament Team here. It was then and there that the legend of the next great safety started to grow—not slowly and meticulously, but all at once.
Today, though, he is here as a counselor—not to intercept passes or bat down balls, but to work with those who will be the future of the sport one day soon.
He even finds time to uncork a dunk fit for NBA Jam during his off hours.
But this athletic brilliance is nothing new. He does this all the time, even when all eyes are off.
He is here to make an impression, although an impression has already been made. To the high school players in attendance, they believe they are sharing the field with the next Sean Taylor or Ed Reed—that generational safety with remarkable gifts who appears every decade or so.
To many more, he is the one who will perhaps finally break up the monotony of Heisman winners to come from the offensive side of the football. A player with a large enough skill set and profile to change the way college football's most prestigious award is viewed and voted upon.
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And to some, he is something completely different. He is a new breed of football player: a 6'3", 220-pound roamer capable of playing just about any position on the field. Safety? Of course. Linebacker? Sure. Defensive end? Why not.
Over the past few seasons, even while he was sidelined with injury, the legend of Derwin James has grown larger. In the moment, it feels much more about potential than actual substance. But the faces and reactions of those hoping one day to become the next Derwin James don't seem obligated to distinguish between the two.
As one NFL scout says, he's just one of those players—rare on the defensive side of the ball—"who the average fan will look for and watch."
"What's not to like?" The way he hits, he can cover, he can bring it off the edge, he can run, the scouts adds. "He's a Kam Chancellor type."
Chancellor isn't the only big name that comes up when you talk to scouts about James, though none seem to be quite right.
"There's no comparison for him at safety," says another scout. "Maybe Myles Jack or [Jabrill] Peppers in terms of pure athlete."
Sure, the sample size is minute for now. To date, James has appeared in only 14 games. After a dominant freshman season (91 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles), his sophomore encore was cut short due to a knee injury that required surgery. His season was over by the middle of September.
Even still, in a year with talented quarterbacks and running backs scattered across the country, Sports Illustrated named James the best player in college football.
Former teammate Jalen Ramsey, one of James' best friends, who now plays cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, doesn't argue the claim.
"He's the best college football player I've seen in a while as far as what he can do on defense and his impact," Ramsey says. "He'll probably go down, in my opinion, as the G.O.A.T. safety at Florida State."
James himself does little to cool the flame when asked, despite tiptoeing around the awkwardness of the honor after an injury and the genuine shock of it all.
"I do believe I am the best player in the country," he says. "I make people around me better."
Before he was labeled as the potential G.O.A.T., James was known as "Pooh Bear" as a child. The nickname was acquired after he would lose himself in front of the television, watching Winnie the Pooh for hours on end.
That was at least part of the name. The other part?
"I was a fat-ass little kid," he says. "I was a bear."
Over time, the pounds shed, thanks in large part to football. James fell in love with the sport. He was inspired by it, particularly by two players: Sean Taylor and Michael Vick.
Taylor, who grew up in Florida before excelling at Miami and then in the NFL, was an icon in the area at the time. Vick was as intriguing of a talent in real life as he was in the Madden video games. James, a lefty, felt that one day he could throw the ball just like him.
At the time, both players were out of position, at least based on the traditional guidelines. Taylor was a linebacker moonlighting at safety, bringing an unusual grace and elegance to even the most violent moments. Vick was something the position hadn't seen before: a running back and punt returner with the best arm in America.
"It was the swag and confidence that they played with," James says. "I try to add that to my game."
Although he played offense growing up, James' gateway to the other side of the ball came out of necessity. The varsity team at Haines City High School needed a safety when he was a freshman. James liked the idea of hitting and liked the idea of playing even more.
It was a natural fit that resulted in a remarkable prep career. While interest was high from just about every major college football program, the decision to attend Florida State was met with little drama. By his senior year in high school, James had the Seminoles logo tattooed on his left shoulder.
Before he arrived at Florida State, Ramsey and the other defensive backs used to watch film of their future teammate. Even before he touched down in Tallahassee, his stardom was assumed. It was merely a matter of time.
At 6'3" and more than 200 pounds, James entered as one of the best athletes on the team.
Ramsey took a liking to James in large part because he reminded him of himself. Not just the talent and a bigger build for a defensive back, but also the way they interacted away from football. "I am a goofy guy," Ramsey says. "Derwin fit right in."
In the weight room and on the practice field, though, there was a familiar switch. Like Ramsey, there are two sides to James. Although he's laid back away from the field, he is anything but on it. He talks, he runs, he jumps, he hits, he talks.
While he didn't start initially, it didn't take James long to see the field as a true freshman. The staff, so enamored by his performance and the sudden depth at defensive back, implemented the "cheetah" package, designed so that James could be on the field as often as possible.
It wasn't always at safety. There were times that James would cover a wide receiver or help his corners on deep balls. On the next play, he would be at linebacker, serving much more as a force against the run.
One NFL scout believes that linebacker could ultimately be James' permanent home at the next level, in large part because of his size. In Oregon, James weighed 225 pounds, although he says his ideal playing weight is 218 to 220 pounds. He also believes he can still run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds.
"People try to compare us at times, but I don't think it's fair," Ramsey says. "My versatility was with corner, nickel and free safety. But Derwin's is strong safety, free safety, linebacker and defensive end. Derwin is a freak. He can do pretty much everything."
Because of the way Florida State intends to use him, James bounces around. Before he takes the field in a given week, he'll spend time with the defensive backs, linebackers and defensive linemen. He'll see every teammate on defense and work with all the coaches. He'll be a fixture in just about every meeting.
Although he is still technically a safety, the qualifier is merely a placeholder.
"Very few guys have the ball-skill ability to play in the back end and adjust to the ball and make plays on the ball like a big wide receiver," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher says of James. "He can also come up and play like a linebacker or play like a defensive end and rush. Those qualities are so extremely rare."
And perhaps he's not yet done moving around. This spring, James spent time returning both punts and kickoffs for the Seminoles in practice. Having spent much of his childhood with the ball in his hands, James has jumped at the opportunity to be used in other places. He's asked his head coach to give him the ball.
Fisher has even toyed with the idea, at least publicly, of using James as a wide receiver, especially if the offense struggles. It's not an ideal solution, but it's something he'd consider.
"If we have to, we will," Fisher says.
Such opportunities could ultimately propel James into rarified Heisman air.
Come December, it will have been 20 years since former Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson won the Heisman. During that season, Woodson was also featured at wide receiver and punt returner. It was the added exposure and touches that launched him over Peyton Manning in the Heisman voting. James might not have the same kind of opportunities on offense or special teams, but few players will be asked to do more.
Heisman or not, safety or wideout, this could be the last glimpse of James at the collegiate level. After one lost season, James will be free to declare for the NFL come winter. The NFL has eight months to figure out where and how he would fit in.
While most everyone who's seen him—certainly those high school players—is already sold, some still need to be swayed. "They talk this kid up like he's Sean Taylor," a scout says of James. "Gotta see it first."
This year, James won't have to wait to convince those still lagging behind. It will start Week 1 against Alabama, where James can return on the brightest stage imaginable against the nation's No. 1 team.
From there, he will face Miami—the school where the late Sean Taylor began to build his legacy. After that, James will take on Louisville QB and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Last season, with James sidelined, the Seminoles gave up 62 points to the Cardinals.
And finally, in November, after missing out on last year's thriller against the national champs, James will get a crack at Clemson.
"He's a problem, I can tell you that," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says of James. "He's deserving of all of the recognition. He's a great player."
As the season progresses, the legend of Derwin James will continue to grow. Not slowly or meticulously, but all at once. Perhaps by the end of it, we will know exactly what he is and where he belongs. Perhaps he is a new breed of defensive player. Or maybe the next Charles Woodson. Or Ed Reed. Or maybe he really is the closest thing the sport has seen to Sean Taylor—the player he emulated as a boy.
"No," he says. "I'm the next Derwin James."
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs
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