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On the defensive: Heisman history not in Derwin James' favor

The lowdown on Derwin James? "No offense to (Michigan's Jabrill) Peppers (a Heisman finalist last year)," ESPN analyst Rex Ryan says, "but he only wished he was the player this kid was." (Monica Herndon, Times)
Published Jul. 28, 2017

Florida State safety Derwin James is on virtually every All-America team or list of the country's top players.

The Sporting News called the redshirt sophomore the No. 9 overall player in college football. Sports Illustrated ranked him first — a welcome surprise James won't argue.

"I do think I'm the best player in the country," James said.

RELATED CONTENT: Is Derwin James the best player in the country? Spoiler: Yes.

Being called the best is one thing. But being named the most outstanding, as designated by Heisman Trophy voters? That's a much tougher challenge for James.

While USF quarterback Quinton Flowers' biggest Heisman liability is his program's place outside the Power Five, James' only problem is his position. He plays on the wrong side of the ball.

Of the 80 previous Heisman winners, only one has primarily played defense: Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, 20 years ago. The betting website Bovada lists Heisman odds for two Seminoles (quarterback Deondre Francois and true freshman running back Cam Akers) but not James.

"It's pretty simple," said Booger McFarland, an ESPN analyst and former defensive lineman for the Bucs and LSU. "You can be a great defensive player, and if you don't put up splash statistics, then you're not going to get noticed."

Defensive battle

Since 1982, only seven defensive players have been Heisman Trophy finalists. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson is the only winner.

Associated Press

Charles Woodson won the Heisman as a defensive player, but that was 20 years ago.

1986: LB Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma

1991: DL Steve Emtman, Washington

1997: CB Charles Woodson, Michigan

2009: DL Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

2011: S Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

2012: LB Manti Te'o, Notre Dame

2016: LB/DB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

While defensive players and coaches would like more consideration for the game's highest individual honor, they understand why the award is stacked against them. Defenders can't rack up gaudy numbers, and it's easier to follow the player with the ball than the one chasing him.

"Disproportionately the ball is everything," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "The Heisman usually goes to whoever has the ball."

Each of the past 18 years, that meant giving the award to either a quarterback or a running back. But look beyond the winners, and there are signs that voters (including me) are beginning to change their minds.

More defensive players have been Heisman finalists over the past eight years (four) than the previous 27 (three). Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen wasn't invited to New York last season, but he earned more first-place votes than two of the players who were.

"I think that dynamic is coming around a little bit," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

The dynamic began to change when Woodson used his versatility to top Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning with a Heisman campaign that included seven interceptions and four touchdowns scored three different ways (rush, catch and punt return).

Fisher said more open offenses have caused the dynamic to keep evolving. Do-it-all defenders who can zip across the field and hit in space stand out even more. Two of them, LSU's Tyrann Mathieu and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, have been finalists in the past six seasons.

"Being that versatile athlete, that's what people like to see," said Louisville cornerback/returner Jaire Alexander.

RELATED CONTENT: What will it take for Quinton Flowers to strike a Heisman pose?.

No athlete in the country is as versatile as James. And that's why he has a chance to make a dark-horse run at college football's most prestigious award.

"I'm more than capable," James said.

He's fast enough to fly in the secondary and powerful enough to bulldoze an offensive tackle, as he did to Florida's Mason Halter as a true freshman.

His 15 career games have produced a statistical smorgasbord: 102 tackles (9 ½ for a loss), five pass breakups, two fumbles forced and recovered, 4 ½ sacks and an interception. While he primarily plays safety, more than one-third of his snaps have been elsewhere — cornerback, slot cornerback, linebacker or edge rusher, according to Pro Football Focus.

While James draws comparisons to Peppers (who finished fifth last year), the former five-star recruit is 2 inches taller, 15 pounds heavier and more highly regarded by the NFL.

"No offense to Peppers," ESPN analyst Rex Ryan said while announcing FSU's spring game, "but he only wished he was the player this kid was."

Because James played only seven quarters last season before tearing his meniscus, FSU has yet to fully unlock the Haines City native's potential. That should change this fall in what will likely be James' final college season, before he becomes a first-round draft pick.

James feels faster now at 220 pounds than he did last season at 212. The time away forced him to watch 11 games from the sideline, which could make him an even smarter player in his familiar responsibilities. And James is poised to add to those duties by contributing more in the game's other two phases.

He returned kicks this spring and should continue to do so this fall. Fisher seems open to James' attempts to lobby for more offensive touches. A Wildcat quarterback package wouldn't be a surprise, and Fisher said the 6-3 James has the size and ball skills to become a receiving threat in the red zone.

"There's no doubt he can go do it," Fisher said. "And if we have to, we have to."

Fair or not, James' chance at being named college football's most outstanding player might depend on it.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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