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Why Derwin James is FSU football's best Thorpe Award candidate since Terrell Buckley

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How No. 3 could be Thorpe Award winner No. 3 for the 'Noles.

NCAA Football: Florida State-Spring Game
Derwin James
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's top defensive back, found Tallahassee a familiar destination shortly after it was first bestowed in 1986. In 1988, Deion Sanders took home the hardware, and in 1991, Terrell Buckley captured the honor. But from then on, no Seminole has won the Thorpe Award, despite FSU's having 24 DBs drafted since 1992.

Florida State's most recent, best hope was Lamarcus Joyner, who was one of three finalists for the award in 2013 but lost out to Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. A big part of becoming a finalist is gaining national exposure, and that's accomplished by getting your name in the headlines, which is derived from appearing in highlight reels. Joyner did just that in his final year at FSU, with 2 picks, 69 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 4 passes broken up, 3 quarterback hurries, and 3 forced fumbles.

Florida State v Pittsburgh
Joyner with a sack in the 2013 opener
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

After all, what do most highlights, be they of football, basketball, or baseball, entail? The same thing that those words have in common: ball. The vast majority of highlights focus on the ball. It's a symbiotic relationship: fans tend to follow the ball when watching sports, and highlights tend to play to that by doing the same. Each facilitates and propagates the other.

It's largely how players like Sanders and Buckley enjoyed the heralded careers, both in college and the NFL, that they did: they knew how to get the ball in their hands. One way, of course, is via interceptions, the career FSU totals of which Buckley leads, with 21, while Sanders is tied for third, with 14. Each player was an artist in baiting opponents' quarterbacks into making throws to a seemingly open receiver.

They also maximized their highlight time by returning punts. Sanders is still the leading punt returner in Seminole history, in total number of returns (126), return yardage (1,429), and return touchdowns (3), the last of which he shares with Buckley, among others.

Call it the Charles Woodson rule. Woodson, a stellar athlete for the Michigan Wolverines from 1995-1997, is the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, having done so in his final year wearing maize and blue. Woodson became the only defender to ever win college football's most prestigious honor via acrobatic interceptions and also a deft ability as a punt returner. In short, a knack for getting the ball in his hands.

Since Woodson's Heisman season, what positions have subsequent Heisman winners played? 13 have been quarterbacks. Four have been running backs. And what do players at these positions do more than any other players on the field? They have the ball in their hands. Moreover, they get on television. And now, on the internet. What's more, unlike, say, receivers, they're not positions dependent upon another to secure those touches.

Which brings us back to the primary challenge for defenders seeking true national exposure: getting in the shot by getting at the ball. Despite being a first-round pick in 2013, former 'Nole Xavier Rhodes wasn't even a Thorpe finalist. Why? The same reason that FSU's Jalen Ramsey, a recent top-five selection, and the first defensive back taken in the 2016 NFL Draft, wasn't a finalist either: not enough face time.

In 2012, Rhodes had three picks, 39 tackles, 2 TFL, 7 PBU, and a forced fumble. Ramsey's 2015: no interceptions, 52 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, and 10 PBU. Great players. But not eye-popping stat lines when it comes to time around the football, AKA time on TV. Translation: being a lockdown corner, while certainly good for a defense, is not always ideal for publicity and the national awards, like the Thorpe, that said buzz generates.

And that's where James comes in. James fills out the stat sheet impressively, which is also of the utmost importance with voters who do not actually, you know, watch the games. His 2015 numbers, as a freshman: 91 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 2 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles. But here's the thing: those numbers came over a season in which James started just eight games.

Even while James was starting, FSU was still figuring out how to best use him, the evolution of which brought him, over time, closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, and hence the football-- and TV cameras (which also helps explain James' lack of picks). By season's end, James embarrassing offensive linemen en route to the quarterback was nothing new.

The might of Derwin James
Derwin James obliterates a UF lineman.

Don't expect that to change. Already an athletic freak capable of leaping a grown man, James spent time this spring working on his pass rushing skills with the defensive ends and coach Brad Lawing. That means that both casual fans and national voters alike figure to see much more of James in 2016, both in box scores and on the screen. And as a result, he may also show up often in the voting columns for prizes like the Thorpe Award as well.