Yes and no. I know. Very direct.
To begin, I included the year in my title for a reason— because it’s the first thing working in James’ favor with regard to his shot at the Heisman Trophy. As a freshman in 2015, he lacked the name recognition necessary to drive media attention. Yes, fervent followers of college football recruiting have known who he is for a long time, but it’s important to remember that this group comprises a very small minority of amateur pigskin enthusiasts, and an even tinier sliver of general sports fans.
And no, the general public is not in charge of Heisman voting. That’s the job of those media members deemed astute enough to cast such a ballot (the same group who thought Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch was a more worthy recipient in his day than FSU’s Dalvin Cook was the last couple of years). But these same writers also hold their positions by generating traffic to their respective outlets. Translation: if Derwin James sells, Derwin James will get attention, and press (like how I’m writing about him right now— try to keep up).
But to back up. 2015 served as an introduction to James as a freshman. Then, in 2016, he was injured in the season’s second game and dropped off the national media’s spotlight. To wit: the last Orange Bowl. If you’d taken a drink every time the Griese announcing clan mentioned Michigan missing Jabrill Peppers for that one game, you’d still be sloshed. Yet they hardly touched on James, a superior player. No, really, it’s all in the numbers. James, as a freshman, amassed more tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, and passes broken up than Peppers did as a junior. So when your Michigan friends who love to tell you about how great their school is attempt to disagree, simply refer them back to their prestigious math class. Or don’t. They’re probably not listening anyway.
But all playful barbs aside, Peppers drew praise because he posted a broad variety of statistics, including the most important: touchdowns. As much as the hardcore aficionados may prize the nuanced intricacies of the game, the average fan likes points.
And their simplicity is hardly their fault. They’re busy with work, with family, with life. Moreover, they’re force fed the information they have through national outlets that are, again, much more focused on click-driven narratives than actual analysis. Simply put, Michigan being good again drives a lot of traffic— it gets an already established Ohio State program its traditional rival back onto the national stage, which promotes the entire Big Ten conference and the midwest itself. So they need a cover boy for that. Hence, Peppers.
There are other options in the south. Clemson is the defending national champ, and a relatively new story. Alabama is the old guard, the Yankees-meets-Red-Wings-meets-Lakers of the south. FSU is somewhere in the middle, while still somewhat nationally reviled from the not-always-fair treatment afforded Jameis Winston and, to a lesser extent, Dalvin Cook after off-the-field incidents. Call it a sort of ’Nole fatigue, bolstered by Florida State’s 29 straight wins that included a national championship.
And also, there’s a great previous tie-in with Michigan’s Charles Woodson being the last defensive player to win the Heisman. And it’s Michigan, Michigan, where Tom Brady once solved complex equations while working at night as a janitor. Or something like that. The point is, whether it’s accurate or not, it writes itself, and who doesn’t love it when his job is easier?
Still, James comes into this year sitting pretty with regard to those big-picture perception issues. Florida State just had its spring game televised nationally on ESPN, and James was showered with rightfully deserved praise. All he did was lead the Seminoles with seven tackles, three of them for loss, and a pair of sacks. The only other team to have its spring game shown on ESPN? Alabama. The same Rolling Tide team against which James and the ’Noles open the season.
So just as those dictating coverage — and narrative — want Michigan back on the biggest stage, FSU already has its own stage guaranteed. It’ll play the first football game in Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium, against the Tide, in a showdown of top-five teams with the nation watching. And that most certainly works in James’ favor.
The last time such a platform availed itself to James, the ‘Noles dispatched of a highly ranked Ole Miss team, while No. 3 posted eight tackles and an interception. If he can make another splash, against ’Bama, he could very well get his name into the national consciousness.
But there will be other prominent stages on which James can shine as well. At home against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the defending Heismen winner against whom James was unable to compete last year, but destroyed the previous season. And, of course, Clemson, in Death Valley.
And James is beyond capable of doing so by wrecking people. He can play every defensive position, and has shown the freakish ability to toss the opposition’s offensive tackles with ease, when he’s not simply streaking past them. But that won’t be enough. To reiterate, James needs to score.
Because we’re simple people, devouring what’s fed to us by those working for a cartoon mouse, who are desperate to stop hemorrhaging subscribers. So James needs to notch points, not sacks. Which is why this spring, if an accurate indicator, could bolster his chances.
James was employed as both a punt and kick returner in FSU’s spring game, and although returns weren’t live, there’s no reason to think that this may not continue into the fall. After all, 2015 saw Jalen Ramsey return kicks in the spring game and also do so during the season on his way to being a top-five draft pick. James could follow suit in more ways than one.
But if he hopes to follow in Woodson’s footsteps as another defender to capture college football’s highest individual honor, he’ll need to find pay dirt. He’ll also need some help from his teammates—another prospect that seems to be working in his favor as of late.
After all, the quarterback of the best team in the country is a perennially lazy choice for the Heisman. But if Florida State is going to achieve the elite status of which many feel it capable this year, it’s becoming increasing probable that the defense will play a leading role. So if you can garner votes by leading an efficient offense, James must do the same by being an even more dominant force for what could well be a top-tier FSU defense.
And if the Seminole defense can be as stingy as it appears, that will help James’ chances as well. Teams faced with the prospect of finishing long drives against a tough D will have few options other than trying to hit on explosive downfield plays against FSU, and that plays right into the hands of an experienced, well-positioned safety like James. If he can snag some picks, the possibility of significant returns against offensive players not trained to tackle could bode quite well for the athletic James, and his chances at hauling in not just INTs, but Florida State’s fourth Heisman Trophy.