Countdown to Kickoff: 89 Days
The “100 Days to Kickoff” series continues this week with a look at a few players who will be crucial to the team’s success in 2017. This particular feature began a few years ago and was inspired by the NCAA Football video game series, in which each team would have one or two “impact players” on offense and defense based on talent, production, and big-play ability. In that same vein, this series of articles will look at players who are both talented and likely to put up big numbers this fall.
DE Antonio Simmons
A low 3-star recruit out of University Christian School in Callahan, FL, Antonio Simmons was part of Georgia Tech’s 2014 recruiting class that included a bevy of defensive line talent. In his first two seasons on the Flats, Simmons saw some playing time, making three starts in 2015, though his production was limited. In 19 games over two seasons, Simmons totaled 18 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and just 1 sack. Headed into the 2016 season, it was hard to be sure what Tech would be able to get out of Simmons. He was not enrolled in school during the spring semester, thus missing spring practice. Despite the setback, Simmons reenrolled in the fall and emerged as Tech’s 3rd defensive end, often subbing for Rod Rook-Chungong in pass rush situations.
2014 - 8 games, 5 tackles, 0.5 TFL,
2015 - 11 games, 13 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
2016 - 13 games, 32 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
I had to double take when I looked up Simmons’ 2016 numbers. I couldn’t believe that he only had one sack because it felt like he was in the opposing backfield more than anyone else on the team last season. Alas, the numbers were correct. In fact, Simmons didn’t even put the quarterback on the ground to record his lone sack. It came on a strip-sack of Boston College QB Patrick Towles when Simmons got a hand on Towles’ arm, causing him to lose his grip on the ball (1:12 in the highlight video below). Despite the lack of sacks, Simmons was credited with 12 quarterback hurries in 2016, the most on the team.
(Note - the music in this highlight video is very NSFW - be careful if you’re watching in the office)
The first thing that jumps out watching Simmons’ tape is his explosiveness off the line (0:20 is a good example). There are many clips in this video of Simmons bursting off the line of scrimmage and meeting the opposing ball carrier or quarterback in the backfield. Once he gets in the backfield, Simmons has a nose for the ball and is a fairly good tackler. Though he isn’t always the one to bring down the ball carrier, he often slows them down or trips them up long enough for another Yellow Jacket to put them on the ground. Though his speed is his best asset, Simmons is able to fight through blockers when he has to (0:55). He is also a solid run stopper and could adequately hold down the strong side of the line when Rook-Chungong was off the field.
With Rook-Chungong’s graduation, Simmons is projected to start on the strong side of the line in 2017 opposite KeShun Freeman. Listed at 6’-3” and just 235 lbs, Simmons would seem to be a better fit on the weak side but Freeman seems to be entrenched there with Anree Saint-Amour returning as Freeman’s primary backup.
Assuming Simmons does spend most of his time on the strong side of the line, he will be tasked with setting the edge against the run. Though he played mostly in pass rush situations in 2016, Simmons has shown some capabilities in the run and should be able to fill Rook-Chungong’s shoes adequately. If Simmons isn’t quite able to live up to Rook-Chungong’s standard against the run, he should represent an improvement as a pass rusher.
One of the biggest things Tech’s defense has been lacking in recent seasons is an elite (or even just an above average) edge rusher. At a time when pass rushing ends and outside linebackers have never been valued higher, the Yellow Jackets can’t seem to produce any sort of consistent rush from outside. KeShun Freeman had an excellent freshman season but has regressed mightily since then. Maybe he can bounce back for his senior season. If he doesn’t, Antonio Simmons will be Tech’s next best option. He doesn’t have many sacks to his name yet, but he was constantly in the backfield last season. If he can convert some of his QB hurries into sacks, it could be just what the Jackets need to take the next step as a defense.