<
>

How Clemson's Isaiah Simmons became the linebacker of the future

play
How track helped shape Clemson star defender Simmons (3:25)

Versatile Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons credits his background in track for developing his speed and athleticism. (3:25)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Back in high school, Isaiah Simmons would glide out to the long jump runway to a chorus of audible gasps. He was tall, with a racing singlet stretched across his lean frame, and he dwarfed his competition. The other parents used to call him "LeBron," a man-child whose body, against all laws of physics, would unspool into acts of undeniable beauty.

Shayla Smith ended up coaching Simmons in the long jump for his final two years at Olathe (Kansas) North High School, but she started out as a member of the opposition. When Simmons approached a jump, she would find a prime spot alongside a handful of other coaches, all of them gathered just to watch, to see this mind-boggling mass of kinetic energy take flight.

"We just don't see people like him on the runway," Smith said.

On the football field, Simmons' physique was an object of curiosity too. He arrived as an energetic freshman, 6-foot-4 and lean. His coach, Chris McCartney, guesses Simmons was maybe 140 pounds as a freshman. The staff jokingly called him "Slimmons."

The kid could run though, and if the rest of the team saw a lanky teenager still growing into his body, no one thought to tell Simmons he was too skinny to play hard. He loved to hit. The team held an intrasquad scrimmage a week into Simmons' first season, and he lined up at free safety. The offense ran a pitch play, and Simmons covered 20 yards in a few strides, bursting through the line of scrimmage and devouring the ball carrier five yards into the backfield. McCartney knew immediately the kid was special.

As he got older, Simmons filled out. He never lost a step, though. During his senior season, Olathe North was using him on both sides of the ball, but he flashed as a receiver. He didn't know the ins and outs of the position, but he didn't have to.

"If they'd just told him to run a go route and thrown it to him," Simmons' older brother, Victor Jr., said, "he'd have scored every time."

As it was, Simmons finished the year with 29 catches for 994 yards and 13 touchdowns and made All-State as both a safety and a receiver.

And so here was this kid from Kansas, a mass of raw material, an explosive long jumper, a big-play receiver, a hard-nosed defensive back, a surefire star ... somewhere. It's just, no one was quite sure where.

It has taken four years in college for all the pieces to come together, but this season, Simmons found his fit. At nearly 240 pounds, he isn't a skinny kid anymore. He has begged his coach to get in for at least one snap on offense, a chance to catch one ball, but it hasn't happened. Instead, he has found a home at linebacker -- although even that sells the job short.

As No. 3 Clemson sets its sights on a fifth-straight ACC title and another berth in the College Football Playoff, Simmons has blossomed into the prototype for a new type of defender -- a hybrid who can rush off the edge, shadow a runner from sideline to sideline or cover the fastest slot receiver an opposing coach can find. Simmons is the answer to all the questions the modern spread attacks have forced upon defensive coaches. They just never thought to look for that answer on a track in Kansas.

"I feel like I'm bringing something to the game that nobody else has," Simmons said. "That no one else can."


EVEN AS A KID, everyone knew Simmons was fast. He would tag along with his older brother for track meets and backyard football, and he would zip past kids twice his age with ease.

As the years passed, Simmons blossomed on the track, but he hated all the work. His coach had a firm rule for every Thursday practice, when Simmons and his team ran the 400 meters: Runners had to be within two seconds of their personal best or they ran again. Simmons was always running again.

"They'd make me cry," Simmons said. "I'd run it over and over and over. But I feel like that built me to have the work ethic I have now."

These days, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables gushes over the guy who simply can't stop running. Simmons is a three-down linebacker, a rarity. But Venables is quick to point out that Simmons also might be Clemson's best special-teams player. The guy just loves to be on the field.

"There's no one who runs more miles on game day than he does," Venables said.


THE THING ABOUT finding a good linebacker, according to Venables, is the guy has to want to hit. He can't be subtle about it. Inflicting damage has to be more than a hobby.

"Guy's got to bite," Venables said, "and if he doesn't bite when he's a puppy, he won't when he's grown up."

Venables has tried to force the issue before. For all the new-age platitudes lauded upon Simmons this year, the hybrid linebacker position isn't new for Clemson. It was just a few years ago that Venables pushed Jayron Kearse to make a similar move from safety into the box, but Kearse wouldn't do it. Linebackers are grunts. Defensive backs have style. Kearse was a DB; or that's at least what Venables called him, regardless of how he actually was used.

Simmons is a different case.

Growing up, Simmons was constantly at the shirttail of his older brother, Victor. The walk from school to their house was just a couple of blocks, but there was a greenway in between, and the boys never quite made it home before a pickup football game would get started on the long expanse of grass. And the Simmons boys were stars.

One story that sticks with Victor happened when Isaiah was maybe 3 or 4 years old. Victor would play "NFL Blitz" on his video game console, and he would let Isaiah saddle up next to him, his own controller in hand. After a few games, however, Isaiah figured out the trick. His older brother had unplugged the second controller, and Isaiah was tapping away at buttons that did nothing.

"I want to play," Isaiah said.

"You are playing," Victor said.

And off Isaiah would go to complain to his father.

The stalemate persisted, until Isaiah stormed off once more.

"I thought he was going to tell dad again," Victor said. "The kid came back with a golf club and smacked me in the nose."

Victor watches Isaiah on the field now, sees that same kid take a proverbial golf club to the nose of opposing quarterbacks and he thinks -- yeah, I saw this coming.


ABOUT A MONTH before signing day in 2016, Venables walked into Dabo Swinney's office and said he had found a player in Kansas that Clemson desperately needed to get on campus.

Simmons was a strong prospect, but colleges don't spend too much time recruiting Kansas; and until Clemson wrapped its season in January 2016, the Tigers weren't even in the market for a DB. Then Kearse, T.J. Green and Travis Blanks all decided to leave early, and Clemson's staff went into desperation mode.

Simmons wasn't looking at Clemson, either. His heart initially was set on Arkansas, but his first visit to campus didn't go well. He had met with some assistants, run an impressive 40-yard dash, then met with head coach Bret Bielema.

"I love it here," Simmons told Bielema. "If you have an offer, I'll commit today."

Bielema offered the requisite flattery but ended with the same critique Simmons heard too often on the recruiting trail: Arkansas had no idea how to use Simmons, so there would be no offer.

Simmons was high on Nebraska, a close-to-home situation that felt like a good fit. He visited Michigan, but he found the culture too businesslike. He had a handful of teams offer him as a wide receiver, a few more as a safety and a number of programs that said he could play anywhere he liked, so long as he would commit.

Then about a month before signing day, McCartney, his coach, posed a question: Had Simmons talked with Brent Venables at Clemson?

Simmons gave a quizzical look. He had never heard Venables' name before.

"I had no knowledge of Clemson at all," Simmons said.

But Venables grew up in Kansas too, and he had a pitch for Simmons that wasn't quite like the others. Clemson wasn't worried about how Simmons would be utilized. The Tigers wanted him on defense, but Simmons' talent superseded any concerns about his role. They would find a way to use his skill set. Never mind the terminology.

"I saw him in the hallway [at Olathe North]," Venables said, "and I just wanted his autograph. He was everything we hoped."

Simmons canceled his final official visit and traveled to Clemson, instead. Venables told Victor Sr. the Tigers were desperate to land his son. Simmons loved the family atmosphere.

When they got back to Kansas, father and son sat down at the kitchen table to talk.

"Well, Simmons," his father said, "what are you going to do?"

"It's farther than I wanted to go," the kid said. "But I'm going to Clemson."


SWINNEY THUMBED through the paperwork his strength coach had just dropped on his desk, numbers from summer testing. Swinney stopped suddenly and shook his head. No, this couldn't be right.

The new kid, Simmons -- his numbers were unreal.

Broad jump: 11 feet, 3 inches. That would've been good enough for fifth at this year's NFL combine.

Vertical leap: 40 inches. That would've been better than all but three players at this year's NBA combine.

He also ran a 4.31 40-yard dash, the fastest time on the team.

All before he had ever played a down at Clemson.

"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Swinney said.

The measurables were all there. The technique, however, was a bit of a mess.

"He was just kind of all knees and elbows," Swinney said. "You'd notice him though. He was rarely in the right place, but you'd notice him. He was just a blur, and you knew early on he was special."

Simmons took a redshirt that first year and worked on learning his new position. He participated in the long jump for the Clemson track team, but he was too focused on football to do it long term. He finally got a chance to play in 2017, mostly at safety, but it wasn't until the following year that things clicked.

Simmons went through spring ball still insecure about his role. He had an idea. He had seen what Clemson did with former linebacker Dorian O'Daniel, the way his versatility was showcased as both a run-stuffer and in coverage. Simmons figured he could do that too, so he set out to talk to Venables about his plan. Turns out, Venables had the same idea.

"Ever since then, I felt like it was meant to be," Simmons said.

It's not that the transition was flawless. In the early days of practice, Venables tagged Simmons with the nickname "Twinkletoes." Simmons had a tendency to dance around, to be in too many places at once, to rely on his feet rather than his head. Venables knew how to push Simmons' buttons.

"I hated it," Simmons said. "But I've grown out of the nickname a little bit. He still calls me that sometimes -- just to tease me."

play
0:25

Simmons' sack gives Clemson a big 3rd-down stop

Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons spies Louisville QB Evan Conley and rushes him for a sack.

Simmons added some weight, but he also learned how to manage all his roles. At free safety, his job was to roam the field and find the ball. Now, he is a chess piece Venables moves to create havoc, but that means Simmons needs to see the next three moves before they happen. His job now is all context; his skill is being one move ahead of the offense.

"You can't really work around him because he's everywhere," one opposing coach said. "It felt like he was playing defensive line, linebacker and safety all in the same play. He's a problem. He wrecks any matchups you think you might be able to create. He chews up space in like two strides."

For offenses looking to spread out the defense and move quickly, the advantage has always been about creating mismatches and preventing opposing coaches from seeing the weakness in their scheme before the ball is snapped. Simmons flips the script. He is now the personnel mismatch -- the guy playcallers have to account for -- and his role is so fluid from snap to snap that it's nearly impossible for a QB to decipher at the line of scrimmage.

"Simmons gives offenses as much trouble schematically [as anyone]," another coach said. "He is one of the most versatile players we have faced."

A year ago, Clemson's defense was predicated on arguably the nation's most talented defensive front. This year, Venables has adjusted to new personnel, and Simmons is the key to it all. Three-man fronts, more blitz schemes, exotic looks to disguise coverage -- Simmons makes it all possible.

"He's our centerpiece," Tigers safety Tanner Muse said. "You never really know what he's doing -- spying the quarterback, blitzing off the edge, covering a guy in the slot. In today's football, he's big enough to fill up holes; and when they go five wides, he can cover his man. He's special."


VENABLES LAUGHED before the question was posed. He knew what was coming:

Where does Simmons fit at the next level?

Four years ago, Simmons missed out on his college choice because he didn't fit. Dozens of other schools failed to recognize how to use his skill set. Even Clemson needed time to find the right spot for him. It's possibly the nicest critique, but the guy is just too good at too many things to fit neatly into a mold, and that makes it tough to present the elevator pitch version of his greatness.

So yeah, Venables hears the question a lot, even from the NFL scouts currently drooling over Simmons' potential.

"Their first question is, 'Where do you see him?'" Venables said. "I say, 'That's y'all's job.' But he gives you more than one position. When you're drafting a guy like that, you're adding more than one guy with one draft pick."

"You can't really work around him because he's everywhere. It felt like he was playing defensive line, linebacker and safety all in the same play. He's a problem." An opposing coach on Simmons

Things have changed since Simmons' recruitment. No, his role isn't obvious, but pigeonholing him into a position also doesn't seem so important these days. As NFL offenses adapt many of the same spread philosophies that have run rampant in college, Simmons isn't just an athlete without a home. He is a superstar with endless possible uses.

"What was a question mark became a strength," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "He's become a new-age back-seven guy."

McShay currently has Simmons slotted eighth in his mock draft, and he said most NFL teams simply don't care about where Simmons fits. The point is that he'll fit anywhere. And in a league where offenses have become increasingly pass dominant, Simmons might be the prototype for what's to come on defense.

Venables isn't ready to go quite that far, if for no reason other than there simply aren't many guys like Simmons. What Simmons has done isn't easily replicated.

"He literally could make All-American in four different spots," Swinney said. "There's just not a box you can't check. In fact, he adds boxes that aren't even a necessity. He's a beautiful football player."

Simmons went home to Kansas during the Tigers' November off week. He flopped onto the couch alongside his dad, tuning the TV to track and field events. This is where he always thought he would be, out on the track. Then he grew into this lanky football body. Still, it's hard for him to fault anyone else for failing to see all that was possible. He didn't see it, either.

"It's like a dream in the making," he said.

And what Simmons would really like next, beyond another ACC championship, another national title and a degree, is to keep surprising people.

Simmons doesn't fit the mold. That's the whole point. He doesn't want a mold. He wants to be something new every day.

"I don't want to set myself back," Simmons said. "I don't ever want to be confined to being one thing."