A large question mark should accompany Derwin James’ name. Bold it. Highlight it. Underline it. Whatever it takes for Alabama to track Florida State’s starting safety during Saturday’s season opener.
The 6-foot-3, 211-pound defensive threat doesn’t remain solely in the secondary. He can also slide in at linebacker and even moves onto the defensive line at times. The word to describe him might be versatile, but fluid works better.
“Someone who can do that obviously poses a big threat,” Alabama tight end Hale Hentges said. “(It’s) something we’re going to have to keep an eye on throughout the game so we know exactly where he is and what he’s going to do.”
It also doesn’t help that there’s no recent film on James. The redshirt sophomore played in two games last year before sustaining a season-ending lateral meniscus tear in his left knee. Thankfully for Alabama, James appeared in all 13 games in 2015, so there’s dated film to study.
As a true freshman, James was second on the team with 91 tackles. He also made 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Not to mention a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, three quarterback hurries and five pass breakups.
“Just everything he did in that year is really a good indicator of what he can do,” Hentges said, “but probably better because he’s got another year of development and growth.”
The expectations should be higher. James was named to the preseason All-ACC first team. He’s on numerous watch lists: Bednarik, Hornung, Maxwell, Nagurski and Thorpe Awards.
“When you have good safeties, they can minimize the big plays that you ever give up because a lot of times they’re ready to stop the ball when it breaks the line of scrimmage,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s certainly good at doing that.”
And that’s certainly something UA quarterback Jalen Hurts needs to be aware of, regardless of what he decides to do with the ball.
Last season, Florida State allowed its opponents an average of 128 rushing and 221.1 passing yards per game. That was without James, for the most part. Alabama had 245 rushing and 210.27 passing averages.
The Crimson Tide returns its top three rushers but only one of its leading receivers. The passing game has to play catch-up.
“I think the accuracy, the decision-making (and) processing have all gotten better,” Saban said. “We still have to improve on route running, protection, consistency (and) accuracy. Those things, I don’t know if you ever get satisfied with as a coach. “
James spent a year on the sidelines, analyzing and learning. There’s a chance he could catch those weaknesses and exploit them. He has the ability to adjust as needed.
Yet, his lack of predictability shouldn’t be daunting. James is not the only defensive back who plays more than one position.
“We practice against Minkah (Fitzpatrick) every day and all those guys every day,” Hurts said. “So I think that really prepares us an offense, but we’ve never played Florida State before.”