TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Widely considered two of the best current defensive backs in college football, Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State's Derwin James were on the same defense once."We played on the same 7-on-7 team at The Opening our senior year," Fitzpatrick said Monday. "I got to know him a little bit. He tried to recruit me to Florida State a little bit, (and) I tried to get him to Alabama."
Neither of their pitches worked, and now the two preseason All-Americans enter Saturday's season-opening showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State as the biggest defensive X-factors for their respective teams.
"That dadgum Minkah — you talk about a heck of a player," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said earlier this week. "It's fun to watch him play. It's not going to be fun this weekend. That guy's too good."
Alabama head coach Nick Saban was similarly effusive when praising James this week.
"I think (for) a safety — and we've had some really good ones here — I think he's every bit as good as anybody we've ever played against," Saban said Monday. "You're in the mix of a lot of plays because you line up somewhere near the formation, whether you're coming down in the box or whether you're playing split safeties. This guy's just a very aggressive player. He's got good ball skills, he's a good tackler, he's a very physical player, good blitzer. Just all around a really, really good football player."
At 6-3 and 215 pounds, the redshirt sophomore James is a little thicker than the 6-1, 200-pound Fitzpatrick and thus has been everything from corner and safety to outside linebacker within FSU's defensive scheme. Fitzpatrick's versatility has been relegated to four of the six roles within Alabama's secondary.
"Obviously (James is) a lot like Minkah ... because when you have a guy that's like that, that can do so many different things, he poses a matchup problem because you don't know exactly where he's going to line up," Tide junior tight end Hale Hentges said Tuesday. "And wherever (James) does line up, you have to make sure you have him in check. So someone who can do that obviously poses a big threat, and 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."
But their value to their teams goes beyond what position they're in at any given moment.
At Alabama, Fitzpatrick has become an on-field extension of his head coach and is often counted on to make pre-snap adjustments based on how the offense lines up.
"Minkah does it as well as anybody I've ever coached, in terms of how he works every day, how he finishes plays, his conditioning level — just phenomenal," Saban said earlier this month. "(He) pays attention to detail. It's important to him, makes sure he knows what to do. ... He works every day to get better. I hope we have more and more players who work like him, because when you have players that do that, you usually have a pretty good team. He sets a great example, and we're excited to be able to utilize him in a lot of different ways."
James remains a bit of an unknown after playing what amounted to just seven quarters of football last season before an ACL injury cost him the rest of his sophomore season.
As a true freshman, James was FSU's second-leading tackler with 91 total stops, 9 1/2 tackles for loss, 4 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and five pass breakups.
"He has film from two years ago, (and) just everything he did in that year is really a good indicator of what he can do, but probably better because he's got another year of development and growth," Hentges said. "So really studying those past (games) is really what we're trying to do."
While Alabama might be watching past film to learn about James, Fisher's film study has only reaffirmed what he already knew about Fitzpatrick.
"If you go back and watch him (and see) how many turnovers he turns into touchdowns, ... he's always in the right place," Fisher said of Fitzpatrick, "Whether he's playing corner, whether he's playing safety, playing nickel (or) dime, I mean, the guy's just an unbelievably instinctual football player. And he can tackle, can cover, he has tremendous ball skills, and he affects the game -- that's like Derwin."
If Fisher had his way back in 2015, Fitzpatrick might just be lining up in the same secondary as James and junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who led the nation with eight interceptions last season — two more than Fitzpatrick had.
Even Fitzpatrick cracked a brief smile when contemplating just how close he came to picking the Seminoles over the Tide.
"I can't say how close I was," Fitzpatrick said, a wry smile creeping onto his face. "But I was pretty close."
This article is written by Alex Byington from The Decatur Daily, Ala. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.