WVU’s Simmons Adjusting To Leadership Role

West Virginia receiver TJ Simmons makes a one-handed grab

WVU’s Simmons Adjusting To Leadership Role

MORGANTOWN, W.VA.–Football coaches are full of metaphors.

One good one is, “If you have to teach a huntin’ dawg how to hunt, ya’ don’t have a huntin’ dawg.”

Interpretation – If you have to teach a football player how to be aggressive, you don’t have a football player.

West Virginia
West Virginia assistant coach Travis Trickett (r) gives T.J. Simmons (1) tight coverage during a drill

West Virginia receiver T.J. Simmons has never been accused of lacking aggression.

Of course, sometimes he’s gone too far.

His block in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma in last year’s regular season finale not only drove the Sooner defensive back out of Kennedy McKoy’s running lane but all the way out of bounds and eventually deposited him near the kicking net. An official threw a flag for what he determined to be Simmons’ overzealousness, negating much of McKoy’s 74-yard run that likely would have set up a go-ahead Mountaineer TD with 11 minutes left in regulation.

West Virginia lost to Oklahoma, 59-56, that day, and the call against Simmons was pivotal in the decision and has been debated ever since.

Even his new position coach, Xavier Dye, who as a graduate assistant at Clemson last season was preparing for the Tigers’ own regular season finale against South Carolina the next evening, saw Simmons’ block. He now uses it as a teaching moment, but not all to the negative.

“You don’t want to coach the aggression out of him,” explained Dye of Simmons. “The only thing I tell him is to use both effort and technique. You don’t want to take the effort away. Just be smart about it. You’ve taken the guy you’re blocking out of bounds. Just let him go, and run and celebrate with your teammates. I love his aggressive nature, but we just have to make sure he also knows when not to go over the line.

“I’d much rather have to teach him when to back off, though, than try to get him to play with effort. The first thing is easy to teach; the second is hard.”

That is one of many lessons Simmons is having to learn this spring. The rising fourth-year junior is on his third different offensive scheme and his third different position coach in his college career. The Birmingham, Ala., native started off as a freshman at the University of Alabama, learning the Crimson Tide system in 2016. Though he didn’t have a catch for Bama, he did play in 12 games on special teams.

He decided to transfer after that one year at UA, and landed at West Virginia. After sitting out the 2017 season to satisfy the NCAA transfer rules, Simmons hit the ground running at WVU … literally. He took a short crossing pattern in the first quarter of the season opening victory against Tennessee and sprinted 59 yards for a touchdown on his initial career reception. In all, he caught 28 passes last year for 341 yards, though that first TD was his only score in 2018.

After the 8-4 season came to an end, Simmons had to adjust to yet another new coaching staff, as WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen departed for the University of Houston. In came Neal Brown and an entirely new set of assistants, including Dye, who himself was a receiver at Clemson (2008-10).

Holgorsen’s and Brown’s offenses have many similarities, as each coach previously learned from Air Raid guru Hal Mumme – Holgorsen as a young receiver at Iowa Wesleyan (1990-92) and then an assistant coach at Valdosta State (1993-95) when Mumme was the head coach at each, and Brown as a receiver at Kentucky (1998-2000), where Mumme was again the head coach.

Holgorsen and Brown each have put their own twists on the original Mumme system – especially when it comes to running ball – but the roots come from the same tree.

“The offense is basically the same,” said Simmons of WVU’s current system under Brown from the previous one under Holgorsen. “There are some differences in terms of the calls and the way we signal in plays, but the offense isn’t that much different.

“One of the biggest differences is practice,” continued the junior receiver. “Every period is something new. Something is always changing, always moving around and active. There is never a down period.”

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One of the biggest differences for Simmons is he’s now one of the veterans on the offense. The leading receivers for the Mountaineers in each of the past two years, David Sills and Gary Jennings, have both graduated, taking a combine 300 career catches with them along with a ton of leadership ability.

“Without Gary and David, I’m now one of the old guys, so I have to step up and be a leader among the receivers,” explained Simmons. “I have to be a guy in the position group who pushes everybody and tries to get everybody to be the best they can be. Gary and David used to push me last year, and now it’s my turn.”

Dye appreciates the leadership efforts of Simmons.

“He’s doing a great job. He’s a leader for us,” said WVU’s receiver coach. “I’m excited about him. He studies, asks very good questions, and that’s something that’s great for those younger guys to see. He takes ownership of the position.”

Simmons is also adjusting to new quarterbacks with the graduation of Will Grier. Jack Allison, who did play in seven games last year while serving as Grier’s backup, is in a three-way battle for the starting QB job this spring, along with redshirt freshman Trey Lowe and Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall.

“All the quarterbacks have been throwing with the receivers since January, so we have been building that chemistry,” noted Simmons, who finished fourth on the team in receptions last year. “They are all looking pretty good, though they are still trying to get a hang of the offense, like everyone else. But the timing is coming along.

“Jack is a tall guy, and it’s easy to see him behind the line. Austin gets the ball out pretty quick,” added the 6-foot-1, 201-pound multi-disciplinary studies major. “He’s not as tall (as Allison), but you have to be ready because he gets it out in a hurry. Same for Trey. It doesn’t really matter who is at quarterback. They all throw it well, and as a receiver, my job is to catch it no matter who throws it.”

West Virginia’s receiving corps this year will likely have to rely on a number of youngsters. WVU’s most experienced receiver is Marcus Simms, who has 87 career receptions for 1,457 yards, but the fourth-year senior from Bowie, Maryland, has been absent from much of spring practice because of what Brown labels only as “a personal reason.”

That leaves Simmons and Tevin Bush (18 career catches in 20 games) as the only West Virginia receivers with significant game experience. Youngsters like Isaiah Esdale, Sam James, Bryce Wheaton, Randy Fields, Dillon Spalding and Kwincy Hall are going to have step up this season.

Because of his experience, Simmons is the one Mountaineer learning both the inside and outside receiver positions right now. The others are not being asked to multi-task just yet, as their job at the moment is to perfect one position and not worry about other spots.

“Having him learn the positions is the main thing, and he’s doing a great job,” said Dye of Simmons, a former four-star recruit. “He’s a great kid. He’s a smart kid, and it comes easy for him. It’s easy for us to flip him in and out, but he’s doing fine. Like I said, I’m excited about him, and it’s fun to coach him.”

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