Alabama football: Tide’s Fitzpatrick, FSU’s James share striking similarities
TUSCALOOSA — Housed at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., The Opening is an invitation-only, three-day spectacle for the best 166 high school football players in the country, who are selected following strenuous evaluation at regional camps and film studies.
Connecting that many elite prospects at one showcase produces an obvious recruiting byproduct. Some arrive wavering, committed to a college but open to hearing the tantalizing pitches their new friends toss their way.
Others aren’t as easy.
Derwin James committed to Florida State as a high school freshman. Shortly thereafter, he tattooed the Seminoles logo on his bicep. Few doubted his college decision when he arrived in Oregon for 2014’s edition of The Opening.
That didn’t mean Minkah Fitzpatrick couldn’t try.
“Got to know him a little bit,” said Fitzpatrick, Alabama’s standout junior defensive back, who played on James’ 7-on-7 team at the event. “He tried to recruit me to Florida State a little bit. I tried to get him to Alabama.”
Fitzpatrick gave his commitment to the Crimson Tide in April 2014.
Though Florida State earned his official visit that October, he followed with one to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Iron Bowl, a 55-44 Alabama win. The Seminoles remained a finalist.
He signed with the Tide four months later.
“I can’t say how close I was,” Fitzpatrick said Monday, smirking. “But I was pretty close.”
Saturday, he gets closer than ever — to the school he almost attended and the friend he tried to recruit three years ago, a man with whom he now shares some striking similarities.
James and Fitzpatrick are their respective defense’s most versatile — and valuable — players.
Though he’s focused at safety or money throughout most of preseason, Fitzpatrick can play all six positions in Alabama’s secondary.
“Minkah’s a daggone good player,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Monday. “He’s always in the right place, whether he’s playing corner, playing safety, playing nickel, playing dime. Guy’s just unbelievably instinctive, can tackle, can cover, has tremendous ball skills. And that’s just like Derwin.”
Coaches and analysts say James could play all 11 on the entire defense, though nose tackle may be a bit much for the 6-foot-3, 211 pound redshirt sophomore.
He’s predominantly at safety, where his size is deceiving and aggression evident, though he can also play cornerback, linebacker or nickelback.
“This guy’s just a very aggressive player,” Saban said Monday. “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. When you have good safeties, they can minimize the big plays that you ever give up because a lot of times they’re ready to stop the ball when it breaks the line of scrimmage. He’s certainly good at doing that.”
James tore his meniscus during Florida State’s week two victory against Charleston Southern, allowing him to redshirt last season. It did little to quell the national acclaim — six national awards named him to their preseason watch lists — but did force Alabama to get creative in preparation.
“He has film from two years ago,” tight end Hale Hentges said Tuesday. “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. So really studying that past gameplan is really what we’re trying to do.”
There’s also Fitzpatrick — the man Saban surmised “does it as well as anyone I’ve ever coached” — providing an identical look at an opposing player for whom Saban had equally effusive praise.
“We’ve had some really good ones here,” Saban said, “I think he’s every bit as good as anybody we’ve ever played against.”
For the first time since 2014, Fitzpatrick sees James, and the school to which he was almost lured Saturday.
He wants it no other way.
“It’s going to make us better in the long run because when teams open with cupcake games or cupcake teams, you don’t really get to see who you are or establish your identity,” Fitzpatrick said. “But when you play teams like Florida State or Alabama, you can really see who you are.”