TALLAHASSEE — As coach Jimbo Fisher walked into Florida State's first practice of the spring Monday, he paused to talk to the player getting ready behind the white truck by the sod cemetery.
Fisher had to check on Derwin James.
Of all the reasons Fisher has to be optimistic about his Seminoles' championship hopes in 2017, none are larger than the do-it-all defensive star who returned to practice from the left knee injury that sidelined him for last season's final 11 games.
"What he's done in the past, that's great," Fisher said.
But FSU is counting on what will happen in the future to be even greater.
When healthy, James is as talented as any player in the country — the defensive equivalent of a dynamic quarterback like Louisville's Lamar Jackson or Clemson's Deshaun Watson. As a true freshman in 2015, James recorded 91 tackles (9½ for a loss), 4½ sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles and recoveries.
At 6 feet 3, 211 pounds, James has the size and rare versatility that will be wowing scouts at the NFL scouting combine this time next year. James can blitz as an edge rusher, drop back as a safety or cover as a cornerback. On Monday, James even worked on returning kicks.
"He can have the skill set to do anything," Fisher said.
That's why it's not a stretch to think that FSU's 2016 title hopes ended when James tore his meniscus in the Seminoles' Week 2 win over Charleston Southern.
James' absence wasn't worth 43 points (the margin of defeat in the road humiliation to Jackson's Cardinals). But would North Carolina have been able to carve up FSU's defense and set up the game-winning field goal with James roaming the secondary? Could Watson have picked apart FSU for 134 passing yards and 17 points in the fourth quarter with James flying across the field?
"I wasn't really watching it as, what would be different?" James said. "But of course there's plays in the game I feel like I can make and help my team."
If James makes them this year, FSU could be in for another championship season.
Fisher counts 17 returning starters from a 10-win team that beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles will likely start 2017 in the top 10 (if not five) before a massive showdown with Alabama in Atlanta. A national title run is a possibility.
But, as FSU learned last year, some of that promise hinges on James' surgically repaired left knee.
He passed his first test Monday, with no ill effects, and he's already eager for the next one — hitting.
"I'm waiting on that," James said, "but that'll come."
'NOLES NOTES: Defensive back Tarvarus McFadden will miss all of spring practice as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. He was tied for the national lead with eight interceptions last fall. … Dameyune Craig — the recruiter who landed Jameis Winston — rejoined FSU as an offensive quality control analyst after assistant coaching stops at LSU and Auburn.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.