CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Derwin James woke up about two weeks ago to a string of messages from friends and family congratulating him for something that he had yet to even hear about.
"They were like, 'Congrats, congrats,'" James said Thursday during his media session at ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. "I was like, 'Congrats for what?'"
The "what" in question turned out to be about as big of a deal as it gets for college football players in early July: Sports Illustrated had spent the past few weeks counting down the top 100 college football players in the nation.
And James was No. 1.
Yes, ahead of a reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville's Lamar Jackson, No. 3), another Heisman finalist (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, No. 2) and a slew of returning All-Americans.
Ahead of, well, everyone.
"I was kind of shocked," James said, citing that he only played in two games last season due to a knee injury.
But that's not to say that James disagreed.
Asked directly if he thought he was the best player in the county, James didn't miss a beat when he answered, "Oh yeah.
"I do think I'm the best player in the country."
It's the type of soundbite that could raise a few eyebrows, but James' reasoning for it removes any hint of brashness or arrogance that might come across at first.
"Because of the way I make people around me better," James said. "And how I help my teammates."
That was obvious last year, when Florida State's defense spent much of the season finding itself in the wake of James' injury.
The Seminoles got the hang of it by the end — they won seven of their last eight games, including a victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl — but suffered a few bruises along the way.
That was tough for the Seminoles, and just as tough for James, who had never before dealt with such a long-term injury.
In time, though, James came away with a new, more mature perspective that he believes will make him a better player. It might even help his teammates, too.
“It made him appreciate being on the field and what it meant and how vital every play, every second is,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “And I think how he played in the spring showed that. And he got that across to his players - don't ever take anything for granted.”
As for his physical condition, James said he feels “10 times” better than he did before his injury.
Florida State's opponents can only hope he is exaggerating.
As a freshman in 2015, James established himself as not only one of the most promising young players in the country, but also one of the most versatile.
There were times when defensive coordinator Charles Kelly used James as a traditional defensive back. And others when he moved James into the box and to act as an additional linebacker. And still more when James lined up at the edge of the line of scrimmage to rush the passer.
The results were simply devastating – see the way James sacked and forced a fumble from Louisville's Jackson when the Cardinals visited Tallahassee two years ago. Or the way he bowled over Florida offensive lineman Mason Halter, who, at 295 pounds, had 83 pounds on the 212-pound James, on his way to the quarterback.
Statistics don't tell the full story of James' effectiveness, but his freshman numbers were nevertheless impressive: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.
Even a year removed, perhaps it's no wonder that Sports lllustrated is so high on James as he enters his third year in Tallahassee.
“James,” SI wrote, “is the best player in college football because he can do more things well than anyone else.”
And the venerable magazine is hardly alone in that stance. While in Charlotte, both James and Fisher fielded a number of questions about James' potential as a Heisman candidate. A defensive player winning the Heisman is virtually unheard of (Michigan's Charles Woodson did it in 1997, but he also contributed as a kick returner), although Fisher believes that could change soon.
Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers (another offensive contributor) finished fifth in Heisman voting last year, while Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o finished second in 2012.
“I think that dynamic is coming around a little bit,” Fisher said. "I think we are appreciating that we are supposed to be rooting for the best player — not always an offensive player.”
James for his part, said he's not buying into the Heisman talk. Noting that the Seminoles have yet to win a conference or national title during his career, he said he's focused exclusively on delivering more hardware to the team's trophy case.
“I want to win the championship,” he said. “Just because you win the Heisman doesn't mean
you win the championship.”
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