After a stellar senior year of high school in which he recorded 29 sacks, Antonio Simmons was named a Parade All-America Honorable Mention, joining the ranks of some of the best high school football players in the country. With all the hype came considerable expectations, and many thought it would be Simmons, not Keshun Freeman, who would lock down the Weakside DE position last season. With Freeman playing almost every snap on defense, there was little room for Simmons to contribute early, but as the season went on, his playing time increased, seeing significant snaps in both the Clemson game and the Orange Bowl. In those games, Simmons demonstrated why he had earned such high accolades, but also showed why he wasn't the starting WDE. His biggest flaw was his inability to finish the play for a sack or a tackle for loss. Simmons would regularly knife into the backfield, only to miss or overshoot the tackle. This will need to be fixed, but he will be able to do it easily with coaching and practice. Additionally, his run defense is a bit of an unknown. Despite the shortcomings in his game, Simmons showed a tantalizing potential that makes him a likely candidate to break out this year.
What part of Simmons' potential makes him such a potential asset to the team? The answer is quickness. Not since the departure of Jeremiah Attaochu has Tech seen a pass rusher quite as quick as Simmons, and that quickness will be sorely needed this coming season. Tech's pass rush was at best anemic last season, regularly failing to get to the quarterback and leaving a talented secondary out to dry. A lack of confidence is his pass rush led Ted Roof to call soft coverage packages, leading to infuriating drives in which opponents would eat up easy chunk yardage. In no other game was the pass rush deficiency more apparent than the ACC Championship. A formerly mistake-prone Jameis Winston was able to carve up the Georgia Tech defense due to having all day to progress through his reads.
Keshun Freeman in his second year is promising for the pass rush, as is the possible return of Jabari Hunt-Days, but Roof will need to get creative this season if he wants to remedy the problem. With a secondary that can lock down most of the receiving threats on the ACC, he'll have plenty of creative freedom. This is where Simmons comes in. His potential as a speed rusher will add an element to the defense that was largely absent last year. Even Freeman wasn't a pure speed rusher, and often got sacks by using nifty moves to work to the inside. Simmons will be able to add quick pressure, forcing opposing quarterbacks to adjust and make quicker decisions. The importance of this role cannot be overstated. Sacks are overrated, pressure is not. With Simmons fulfilling the vital speed rush role, the defense as a unit will be able to take a huge step forward this season.