Isaiah Simmons arrived at Clemson a three-star safety prospect and a bit of an after-thought. The Kansas native wasn’t a lifelong fan, nor some diamond in the rough the Tigers uncovered early in the process. No, when the Tigers caught Isaiah Simmons’ eye he was just scrolling through Twitter. Simmons’ dream school was Arkansas, and for whatever reason the Razorbacks weren’t interested. Teams were mostly interested in his athleticism; several schools pegged him a receiver.
Simmons caught the Tigers’ eye when three defensive backs declared shortly before the 2016 draft. The departure of Jayron Kearse and TJ Green left a lot of room at safety, and Dabo told his staff, “well boys, we got three weeks. We’re in the DB business”. Brent Venables, a K-State alum who coached in the area, heard of Simmons through a connection, and took an immediate liking.
Simmons spent a year redshirting and debuted in 2017 with almost fifty tackles as a reserve safety. The next offseason, Simmons and Venables mutually and separately came to the idea to move him from safety to Sam linebacker/nickel back.
The Sam position best exemplifies defensive transformation in this spread offense generation, going from pure linebacker to essentially a hybrid safety/linebacker over the last twenty years. A generation or two ago Simmons is still a strong safety who plays in the box. Those guys used to be incredibly important, you can see it reflected in the position terminology. Power programs like Oklahoma and Penn State called these positions names like Monster and Hero.
The spread offense shaped present day football all the way up to the NFL. The strong safety position is still important (Tanner Muse is quietly having an incredible season), but the Sam/nickel (from here on just referred to as Sam) might be the most difficult position on defense. The Sam may have to take on offensive linemen in the box, tackle receivers on screens and cover downfield on the same series. It’s the only position on Clemson’s depth chart described with a slash. The more versatile your Sam, the more versatile the entire defense is.
Simmons had big shoes to step into last year, his first as the starter. Dorian O’Daniel, 2017’s starter, finished second on the team for total tackles and third for TFL’s/sacks before the Chiefs drafted him. Simmons’ athleticism translated immediately, he wound up logging ninety-seven tackles (including a team leading eleven on special teams). This earned Simmons a second to third round grade for the 2018 draft, which Simmons didn’t find good enough. Venables, his position coach, sold Simmons on the idea of spending 2019 expanding his skillset to be better prepared for the NFL. Venables did not lie to the man, Simmons has improved by leaps and bounds since 2018.
At the college level, usually your nickel/Sam is either a plus coverage player and a good enough run defender, or a plus run defender and a good enough player in coverage. Simmons is elite at both. He entered 2019 a pre-season All-American and has more than met expectations. It’s not a question of if he’ll be a first round pick; most project Simmons in the top ten.
Clemson’s defense has changed this year. After losing the Power Rangers, they’re playing a lot more three defensive linemen fronts and relying on playmakers at linebacker and safety. Simmons versatility this season is a big part of why that’s so effective.
Venables is moving him all over the field, from playing as an edge rusher, to covering slot receivers, to deep safety and linebacker. He’s constantly shifting around between and during plays and helps Clemson disguise what they’re going to wind up running. Take this play for example, where Simmons can credibly deal with the tackle in the running game but runs to cover the flats as part of a zone blitz.
Against more spread oriented teams Simmons is spending a good chunk of time at safety this year. Although he can cover the deep middle (which is an absurd thing to say about a 230lb. linebacker) Simmons is mostly there to play the run from depth.
Blocking schemes don’t account for safeties coming downhill this aggressively, and Simmons pursuit speed helps keep long runs from becoming touchdowns. Linebackers should not be able to do this.
That pursuit speed comes in handy when running down throws to the perimeter. Simmons is good at reacting to RPO’s because he’s fast enough to recover after the quarterback makes a decision. He’s pretty adept at sniffing out screens behind the line of scrimmage and a fantastic open field tackler.
That pursuit speed also makes Simmons a deadly QB spy;he leads the team with six sacks and a lot of them look like this.
Quarterbacks simply cannot outrun him.
He’s pretty deadly as a blitzer too, here he comes off the edge and forces an AJ Terrell pick six.
On top of all of that Simmons grades out as one of the best linebackers in the country in pass coverage. Usually a slot receiver on a linebacker is a mismatch, but Simmons can handle it comfortably.
His athleticism has always translated to good man coverage, but he’s taken serious steps forward as a zone defender this year. Simmons’ ability to keep up with slot receivers downfield and take on linemen in the box in the running game is unique.
Simmons is a true three down linebacker and a weapon no matter how Venables chooses to use him at the moment. As Dabo put it, he could probably be All-ACC at three positions this year. Currently Simmons leads the team in snaps, tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, QB pressures and forced fumbles. He’s second in passes defended and has notched an interception as well. If you’ve got some time to kill, watch a replay of a game and follow #11 on defense, you’ll find him wreaking havoc. Isaiah Simmons is a star and we should appreciate him while he’s here.