Trapped inside their very own 5-yard-line, Haines Metropolis coach Jake Chapman was out of choices. His beginning quarterback was injured. His backup wasn’t prepared. As Chapman noticed it, he had one selection. Give Derwin James the ball, and belief he’ll make one thing occur.
James had an extended monitor report of such wizardry in Haines Metropolis, Fla., the place his peewee soccer staff as soon as went seven years and not using a defeat. It was apparent even then that James was a pure with the ball in his palms, bursting on the seams with uncooked expertise. However Chapman had already thought-about rigorously each choice for the best way to deploy his star senior. He determined to maintain James at security, the place Florida State had recruited him. He needed to be truthful to the child. He didn’t need to put an excessive amount of on his plate.
However because the season wore on, James pressured his means onto the sector at different positions, his position always shifting and increasing with the sport plan. It didn’t appear to matter the place he performed or what number of roles he was given. “He always just knew what to do on the field,” Chapman says.
This ever-changing position can be a promising precursor to the positionless future that awaited him in the NFL, the place he has had made his mark everywhere in the subject in simply his first season, catapulting into Rookie of the Yr rivalry on a Chargers protection that has weaponized his versatility.
Because the Chargers face the Chiefs on Thursday in an important AFC West showdown, James leads all NFL safeties in sacks (three.5), whereas additionally main the Chargers in tackles (88), interceptions (three) and move deflections (12). In a banner season for offenses throughout the league – probably the most prolific of which resides in Kansas Metropolis – James has already checked all of the packing containers of the prototype trendy defender, a 215-pound, heat-seeking missile full with shutdown-cover expertise, able to impacting the sport at each degree.
For James, the boundaries of ordinary positions have by no means appeared to use. On any given night time at Haines Metropolis, he may man a deep zone, play in the field, rush the passer, or cowl a workforce’s greatest receiver 1-on-1, all whereas returning kicks and punts. Typically, once they wanted an enormous play on third down, James would even prod Chapman to let him play wideout. “I’ll go up and get it, Coach,” he’d inform him, and Chapman often obliged, understanding James was typically his best choice.
Nonetheless, to Chapman, quarterback all the time felt like a bridge too far. “He cannot throw to save his life,” jokes Ryan Pynes, a childhood good friend and former Haines Metropolis quarterback. “It’s one of the only things he can’t do.”
However on this specific night time, James didn’t look forward to Chapman to ask. He sidled up subsequent to his coach, apparently studying his thoughts. “Coach, I’ll go out there for you,” he stated.
Moments later, James stood in a shotgun set, his toes creeping simply over the top zone line. He didn’t know the performs, however it didn’t matter. As James took the snap, he hesitated, wanting proper, then left, earlier than taking off as if fired from a cannon. He juked one participant, then one other. He shrugged away arm tackles and high-stepped down the sideline, as if he was floating throughout the grass. After virtually 50 yards, James was lastly pushed out of bounds.
It nonetheless wouldn’t be sufficient to save lots of Haines Metropolis, as his temporary cameo at quarterback got here up in need of the aim line. (He did, nevertheless, full a move, he factors out.) However years later, in his first coaching camp with the Chargers, the tape of that night time would resurface in the defensive backs assembly room, providing his teammates a glimpse of what everybody in Haines Metropolis had already recognized. It didn’t matter the place you set Derwin James. His presence can be felt.
At coronary heart, he’d all the time been a operating again. That’s the place Robby Pynes first deployed him all these years in the past, when James joined the Haines Metropolis Rattlers on the youngest age allowed. Even then, his instincts have been preternatural. Toss him the ball, give him a sliver of open subject, Pynes recollects, “and he was gone, pretty much every time.”
Pee-Wee guidelines dictated that no participant rating greater than twice in one recreation, so coaches made contingency plans for James’ dominance. “Pooh Bear,” as he’s recognized round Haines Metropolis, would typically rating twice in his first couple carries. “We’d still give it to Pooh,” says Ryan Pynes, who quarterbacked the Rattlers, “but every time, they told him to just run the ball out of bounds at the 5-yard line.”
He all the time appeared to have a ball in his palms. Each morning earlier than faculty, James and his pals would attempt to squeeze in a fast recreation in the course of the spare jiffy that they had on the bus cease. Routinely, it was James who would persuade their bus driver to attend till the subsequent landing was scored earlier than leaving.
“We were late a lot,” James says, grinning.
He was solely moonlighting on protection then, however contact was one thing he already appeared to welcome. After one late night time of enjoying soccer, a younger James was driving again on his bike when he collided with a automotive at an intersection. He would wish staples in his head, however remained undeterred. It was the primary of three events James was hit by a automotive on his bike – twice, by the identical automotive. Every time, he brushed it off, no worse for the wear and tear.
As he grew older, the Rattlers grew into an unstoppable Pee-Wee powerhouse, profitable Tremendous Bowl after Tremendous Bowl. Earlier than lengthy, phrase unfold of how electrifying James was with a ball in his palms. “All the little kids then, all they’d talk about was how they want to run the ball like Pooh Bear,” Ryan Pynes stated. The raves barely registered on his radar. “You could’ve put him at center, and he would’ve been happy.”
Nonetheless, no one would’ve guessed then that James’ soccer future would take him away from the ball. However that trajectory modified earlier than eighth grade, when he moved to Jacksonville together with his father for the summer time.
He didn’t know anybody in Jacksonville. “All I had were weights and the beach,” James says. So day-after-day for these three months, he used the previous weight set in his father’s storage and ran mile after mile by way of the sand, pushing himself in contrast to he ever had earlier than.
By the top of that summer time, when James stopped by the Pynes’ home, he appeared significantly totally different than he did simply months earlier. “He seriously had a man’s body with a baby face,” Ryan says.
He recollects James pointing to their bench press, the place 200 kilos have been on the bar. That was straightforward, James advised him. Pynes, who was a yr older, laughed. “Add another hundred,” James stated, smiling.
No a part of him believed his pal might even carry the bar off his chest. However there he was, barely in the eighth grade, bench-pressing 300 kilos to show some extent. To this present day, as James has skyrocketed to stardom first at Florida State and now in Los Angeles, that second continues to be seared into his reminiscence. As he set the bar down, James smiled. The awe on his good friend’s face was all of the affirmation he wanted.
It wasn’t till the Chargers have been formally on the clock with the 17th general decide in final April’s draft that the defensive coaches gathered in Gus Bradley’s workplace started to really consider that James had fallen into their laps. However since he was employed as a top quality management assistant simply two months earlier, Addison Lynch had ready them for the slim risk, anyway.
America, meet Derwin James.
(And RETWEET to offer him your #ProBowlVote) pic.twitter.com/kPg7eNooNv
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December three, 2018
Lynch had spent the previous seven years in Tallahassee, the previous few of which meant a entrance row seat to James’ rise. He watched intently as Florida State introduced him alongside slowly, whilst he pressured coaches to create particular defensive packages to make use of him. That sluggish improvement, as he noticed it, allowed James to flourish in methods he won’t have in any other case – like, as a cross rusher. “Then, once he got ahold of everything, we just let him loose,” Lynch says.
In Los Angeles, the Chargers deliberate to comply with an identical strategy, bringing him alongside slowly, making an attempt him at a number of totally different positions, earlier than unleashing the versatile weapon they’d envisioned. They have been sure James might do the whole lot he’d achieved at Florida State.
“We’re thinking, ‘Well, he can fit this role, but he can also fit this role and this role and this role and this role,’” Lynch stated. “It kind of spiraled. We just had to hold ourselves back, to try and spoon-feed him and not give him too much too fast.”
However naturally, James accelerated that timeline on his personal, as he has so many occasions earlier than. Since working his method into the beginning lineup earlier than the season opener, James has excelled in each place the Chargers have put him – of which there have been fairly a couple of. He’s performed at the very least 40 snaps in 5 totally different positions, in response to Professional Soccer Focus, and his dominance is hardly contained to the position listed on the Chargers roster. As a cross rusher, his productiveness fee is the very best in the NFL, no matter place.
“This guy, he’s got different tools than a lot of players do at this level,” Chargers defensive backs coach Ron Milus says.
With so many instruments, the query has all the time been how greatest to make use of them and when, however now, as James enters the ultimate weeks of his rookie season on a statistical tempo equal to a few of the nice safeties to ever play in the NFL, maybe, it’s time we put these considerations to relaxation, as soon as and for all.
His transition has been smoother than anybody may’ve imagined. As the ultimate stretch of the season approaches, there isn’t any holding James again any longer, as each Sunday, his position modifications, based mostly on matchups, and nonetheless, James thrives, simply because the Chargers predicted, simply as these in Haines Metropolis had seen years in the past.
“I’m like a coach’s best friend, man,” James says. “Wherever you need me to go, I’ll go.”