Spring scrimmages are breeding grounds for overreactions. An oasis in the long offseason, a spring scrimmage offers something resembling a real football game, giving us a sneak peek at rosters for the upcoming season, including potential new starters and quarterback battles. But with their combination of incomplete playbooks, altered rules and uneven teams, everything should be taken with a grain of salt. There are rarely substantial takeaways.
Florida State's Garnet and Gold game on Saturday, however, featured perhaps the most meaningful takeaway we'll see all April, and it had nothing to do with quarterbacks: The best defensive player in college football is back, healthy and ready to lead a playoff contender.
Last September, Derwin James tore his meniscus in the Week 2 win over Charleston Southern and underwent surgery on his left knee. He missed Florida State's final 11 games, depriving the Seminoles of their most talented defensive player, a versatile weapon capable of filling a variety of roles at a high level. In their first game without James, the Noles provided the fuel for Lamar Jackson to win the Heisman Trophy, losing 63-20. The next two games, they gave up 35 points and over eight yards per play in a win over South Florida and lost 37-35 to North Carolina, ending the team's playoff hopes on the first day of October while putting significant pressure on defensive coordinator Charles Kelly to find quick fixes.
James was the type of player who could mask weaknesses because he forces offenses to account for his every move. The absence of James was far from the only reason the Seminoles struggled, and he certainly wouldn't have closed the 43-point gap in the evisceration the Noles experienced at the hands of Jackson. James is the nation's most valuable returning defensive player, though, doing a lot of the things Jabrill Peppers was known for doing at Michigan, but with more tangible production.
A 6-foot-3, 211-pound redshirt sophomore, James was one of the nation's best overall recruits when he signed with Florida State in the class of 2015. He immediately met the recruiting hype that fall, starting eight games and filling multiple roles to finish with 91 tackles, 9 ½ tackles for loss, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Primarily a safety, James has the athleticism and quickness to line up as a slot corner, and he has the size and strength to move up and play linebacker or even come off the edge as a pass rusher, as rival Florida found out:
James started off last season -- as the new leader of the defensive backfield with Jalen Ramsey gone -- on the right foot, recording eight tackles and an interception in the Labor Day comeback win over Ole Miss. Unfortunately, before the Seminoles got to their key conference games, James was lost during a 46-point rout of an overmatched FCS opponent.
Nobody would have blamed Florida State if it had held back a newly healthy James this spring. While he's played in only 15 career college games, James is a proven star, and it's not essential for someone like him to get full-speed contact reps in a scrimmage. Quarterbacks -- like Florida State's Deondre Francois -- often don't get subjected to contact, and stars like James are often limited so as not to create unnecessary risks, too.
But after taking part in all of spring practice over the past few weeks, James took the field on Saturday in Tallahassee in a garnet No. 3 jersey -- one of two players wearing that number that drew all of the attention, along with phenom freshman tailback Cam Akers, the possible replacement for Dalvin Cook. It was his first chance to put on a public display of his newfound health, and he took full advantage. James was all smiles before kickoff with a hop in his step, and he immediately looked like the player we knew before the injury. No hesitation, no fear, just a one-man wrecking crew ready to take another shot at having his true national breakthrough transformation into a household name.
On his first play, he turned and ran with tight end Ryan Izzo, leading to an incompletion. Soon after, he went back to field a punt, although there were no live returns in the scrimmage. He made a big hit on Akers, and he made a huge hit to break up a pass on fourth down. He had seven tackles and recorded two "sacks," although the quarterback could not physically be sacked.
This is the James that transforms the Florida State defense and puts the Seminoles in position to take back the ACC from Clemson and compete for a playoff bid.
No player had more interceptions in 2016 than FSU cornerback Tarvarus McFadden's eight. He's back. While star end DeMarcus Walker is gone, Brian Burns, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi give the Noles an excellent foundation up front. For all of the struggles, the FSU defense ended up finishing 37th in yards per play allowed last season -- not great, but it showed progress in the second half of the year -- and it could end up becoming one of the nation's top units now that James is healthy.
The Noles face a brutal schedule that begins with a potential playoff preview against Alabama in Atlanta in Week 1 -- the most anticipated nonconference game of 2017, possibly between the preseason No. 1 and 2 teams -- and they also host Miami, N.C. State and Louisville and visit Clemson and Florida. But beyond Jackson, the ACC's top quarterbacks are gone, and with Francois and James leading the way as top recruits continue to flock to Tallahassee, Florida State, at least if it improves along the offensive line, is the early best bet to climb to the top of the ACC, ahead of the defending national champion Tigers and defending Heisman winner Jackson.
Perhaps it's easy to overstate the importance of James, a safety, to Florida State's 2017 chances, but whereas other spring scrimmages are mostly about who's gone, the Seminoles' game, beyond Akers' debut, became largely about who's back.
For fans, the best spring scrimmages don't necessarily provide new information, which can often be exaggerated. They offer a mid-offseason reminder of why expectations are so high. Nowhere in this spring is that truer than Florida State, which got the type of dazzling display from James to help confirm the Seminoles' status as a national contender. The best possible news for FSU was that the James of today would look a lot like the James of last April, and that's exactly what happened this spring.