Signing day is typically a day for reserved optimism. The annual coaches’ press conferences on college campuses around the United States are sessions that blend self-congratulation and hype with patience.
On Feb. 5, 2014, Jimbo Fisher briefly ignored these norms when Demarcus Christmas came up.
“If Christmas would have gone to some Rivals camps,” the Florida State head coach said on the day the Manatee High School defensive lineman signed his letter of intent with the Seminoles, “he would have been the No. 1 or 2 player in the whole country.
“Everybody we ask, the first guy coming out of their mouth — that’s the best football player we’ve played against in 10 years.”
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For the Seminoles, a player such as Christmas, who wound up a four-star prospect and ranked the nation’s No. 9 defensive tackle by 247sports.com, counts as a diamond in the rough, the sort of player who isn’t necessarily predestined for an NFL career.
Christmas’ rapid ascension to key cog of FSU’s defense, though, hasn’t been a surprise to the Manatee coaches who watched him blossom from a raw, 6-foot-4, 300-pound freshman into a polished, NFL-caliber starting defensive tackle for No. 10 Florida State. The redshirt sophomore took over as a full-time starter at the beginning of the season in Tallahassee, and he will play on his biggest stage yet Friday when the Seminoles (9-3) battle No. 6 Michigan in the Orange Bowl at 8 p.m.
Former Hurricanes defensive coordinator Jim Phelan was one of the first with the Canes to see the potential. He and ex-Hurricanes offensive line coach Steve Peebles functioned as the liaisons between the varsity and junior varsity. Peebles spent junior varsity game days helping on the offensive side of the ball, and Phelan worked with the defense.
“We got to see who was coming,” said Phelan, who now coaches linebackers at Saint Stephen’s.
And though Christmas’ technique wasn’t great, he wreaked havoc as a defensive tackle.
He stood out like a sore thumb when he was on JV.
Jim Phelan, former Manatee defensive coordinator
One game, in particular, still stands out to Phelan. He believes it was when Manatee met Sarasota High School. Christmas didn’t just spend the game in Sarasota’s backfield — he made plays from sideline to sideline, until one of the coaches pulled him from the game.
Phelan was incredulous. Christmas’ stance wasn’t right, the junior varsity coach told him.
“You can worry about his stance on Monday,” Phelan told him. “The kid needs to be in the game today. He’s making plays.”
Less than a year later, Christmas was starting for the varsity Hurricanes. A year after, he committed to FSU before the end of his junior season. With everyone from South Florida to Alabama interested, Christmas let his recruitment go dark.
“Growing up, I rooted for Florida State,” Christmas said, “and after making a visit here it felt like home.”
He didn’t attend any Rivals.com or ESPN camps the following summer and never took a visit anywhere other than FSU. He never rose past the four-star rating; evaluation wasn limited to in-game action.
Even when other schools came calling, Christmas did his best to avoid them. He and head coach Joe Kinnan tried to get the word out that he was locked in with the Seminoles, not that they could keep coaches from being interested.
Chris Rumph, who was Crimson Tide’s defensive line coach at the time, made a stop in Bradenton during one recruiting trip and sat with Kinnan in his office. He spoke with Christmas only briefly then went on his way.
“I respect his opinion,” Kinnan remembers Rumph saying, “but just let me know if he changes his mind, we want to get back in the recruiting process of him.”
The stars never told the whole story for Christmas. He was still raw when he finally cracked the Canes’ starting lineup toward the end of his sophomore year and even as he added polish, Christmas remained a tantalizing long-term prospect with his massive frame and surprising athleticism.
Christmas’ recruitment quietly wound down during the winter of his senior year, when he took a last official visit in January then signed his letter of intent less than two weeks later. It was a lifelong goal to play for Florida State. He didn’t need any added fanfare to make it official.
“I’m just thankful for this opportunity and them blessing me with a scholarship,” Christmas said. “It really is a dream come true.”