Derwin James is Florida State’s best pass rusher

Photo by Logan Stanford

For the past couple of weeks, I have been going through each one of Florida State’s games in 2015 trying to get a better feel for what the ‘Noles return in 2016. To no surprise, one player that consistently stands out on film is rising sophomore Derwin James. He had a sensational true freshman season, finishing second on the team behind Reggie Northrup with 91 total tackles and second on the team behind only DeMarcus Walker with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. James excelled in his safety role, providing excellent run support while also being efficient in pass coverage.

But one factor that stood out to me while watching the tape? Derwin James’ effectiveness as a pass rusher.

This should be a surprise to no one, considering that two of James’ biggest plays from last season came on pass rushing situations. Those, of course, are his sack-fumble on Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and his de-cleating of Florida offensive tackle Mason Halter.

Before delving further into this topic, I think it’s important to define what I mean by “effectiveness as a pass rusher.” On a per snap basis, there was no Florida State player more efficient at beating offensive linemen and getting to the quarterback than Derwin James. Obviously, DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat are better players at the defensive end position as James was in no way asked to defend the run from the edge nor employed as an edge rusher for 70-80 snaps a game.

A similar situation can be found down the road at Alabama. Rising senior linebacker Tim Williams was perhaps the Crimson Tide’s best pass rusher in 2015 and was certainly a key factor in their national championship run. But Williams was only deployed in passing situations for perhaps a dozen snaps a game. However, he was very efficient on a per snap basis and his excellent play in those limited pass rushing situations is the reason why many NFL draft analysts, including ESPN’s own Todd McShay, project Williams to be a top ten pick in the 2017 draft.

To be fair, Derwin James was not asked to rush the passer a ton over the course of the 2015 season. He started the final eight games of the season but was only deployed as a pass rusher against certain teams. Versus teams that employed a spread offense like Louisville, Clemson, and Houston, James only rushed the passer a handful of times. But against more pro-style offenses like North Carolina State and Florida, James was deployed as a pass rusher close to a dozen times a game.

An interesting factor to keep in mind is that James was not usually deployed on some unique or intricate blitz scheme that freed up James to get a hit on the quarterback. No, on many occasions James was lined up across from a blocker who had full knowledge that he was coming.

Take the below play for example. James is lined up as one of five Florida State players on the line of scrimmage. On the snap, the running back has James in pass protection, but James easily uses his hands to blow by the back.

But how does James perform against offensive tackles in pass protection? In the play below, James is matched up one-on-one versus the right tackle. James effortlessly uses his hands to burst pass the tackle and force the quarterback to scramble. Derwin James has the right tackle completely turned around before any other rusher is disengaged with their blocks.

In the play below, James goes up against an interior offensive lineman. Pre-snap, he is lined up as one of the four players on the line of scrimmage. Initially, James is double teamed by the left tackle and left guard, but the left tackle passes James off in order to account for Jalen Ramsey, who is coming on a blitz. Isolated one-on-one, James bends around the edge and gets the clean-up sack along with Walker.

In the play below, James is isolated one-on-one versus the left tackle, a blue-chip recruit named David Sharpe. James easily bats away the initial punch by Sharpe and knocks him off balance. From there it’s an easy effort to get inside and chase down Treon Harris.

Again, James is lined up one-on-one versus Sharpe. James initially acts like he is going to bend around the edge, but stops on a dime and cuts inside Sharpe. Treon Harris gets the throw away, but James gets the hit on him.

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not take a look at the play below. However, there’s not much to it. James gets his hands on Mason Halter’s chest and throws the 295-pound right tackle off of him. He doesn’t get the sack on Harris, but the fact that a 213-pound defensive back is literally bench pressing a 295-pound right tackle is perhaps the most impressive individual play made by a Florida State player last season.

Derwin James wins as a pass rusher due to his freakish combination of speed and strength,  a surprisingly good use of his hands, and a seemingly endless motor. Listed at 6-3, 213-pounds per Florida State’s official roster, James has the speed of a player twenty pounds lighter and the strength of a player fifty pounds heavier than he is. There aren’t many players in the world of football with a skill set like that.

Simply put, Derwin James is a freak.


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