ACC

His dream school passed on him. Now he’s Clemson’s best player on defense

As Isaiah Simmons stood on the turf at the The Carrier Dome answering questions after Clemson’s 41-6 victory against Syracuse on Saturday night, the Tigers’ redshirt junior linebacker couldn’t help but smile.

Simmons seriously considered entering the NFL Draft following the 2018 season to pursue his lifelong dream of playing at the next level, but “unfinished business” led to his decision to play one more year for the Tigers.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound athletic freak was told that he would go anywhere from the first round to the third round in the 2019 draft if he opted to leave school after his redshirt sophomore season, but that wasn’t good enough.

“I told Isaiah, ‘Whatever happens, you have to be OK with this,’” recalled his father, Victor Simmons. “And Isaiah said, ‘No, I’m not OK with being a second or third round draft pick. I’m a first round draft pick.’ So to solidify that, he decided to go back to school.”

That decision could not be working out better for the Kansas native through the first three weeks of the 2019 season.

Simmons leads the Tigers with 27 tackles, including 17 solo stops. No other player on Clemson’s roster has more than eight solo tackles.

Simmons had perhaps the best game of his career Saturday against the Orange, recording a game-high 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a career-high two sacks. He continues to raise his draft stock after telling Clemson coach Dabo Swinney before the season that this will be his last year. And Simmons will likely be a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, with the potential to climb into the top 10.

As crazy as it is to think about now, with Simmons being a star on the Clemson defense, he almost didn’t end up with the Tigers at all. It took his dream school passing on him, a Clemson safety turning pro at the last minute and Brent Venables receiving a late tip for Simmons to end up with the Tigers, where he has blossomed into a superstar.

“Me and Isaiah have had this conversation several times. I asked Isaiah, ‘Do you think if you were playing somewhere else you would have the (fame) you have, that you would be in the spotlight that you’re in if you played somewhere else?’” Victor Simmons said. “And he said, ‘No, I still would be good, but I don’t think I would get all of this attention that I’m getting now.’”

It’s attention that is much-deserved and will only continue to grow.

Passed over

Simmons was recruited by several schools within driving distance of his hometown of Olathe, Kansas, but the school he really wanted to attend was not one of them.

“He wanted to go to Arkansas. And for some odd reason they would not offer him a scholarship,” Victor said. “He liked Fayetteville. He liked the town and everything like that. And it’s only four hours away from our house.”

Simmons camped at Arkansas and performed well for head coach Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks’ staff as his recruitment was heating up, but apparently not well enough to earn an offer.

“At the time I just felt like that’s where I should be. I went there just for an unofficial visit. It happened to be a day they had a camp. They asked me if I had cleats with me and could work out. And I happened to have them, just in case, honestly,” Simmons said. “That’s when I found out I was pretty fast. I remember running the 40 there and at the end after I ran everybody was looking at me. I was like, ‘Dang, I must have run a slow time.’”

Not exactly.

Simmons asked his brother, who was accompanying him on the trip, what his 40-yard dash time was and found out that heads were turning because he had run a 4.37 at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds.

Simmons spoke with then Arkansas assistant Sam Pittman, who is currently on staff at Georgia, about joining the Razorbacks.

“He took me in there with the head coach, and I was like, ‘Coach, I want to be here if you’ll have me. If you’ll offer me a scholarship I’ll commit.’ And I guess they just didn’t know what position I was,” Simmons said.

Arkansas was far from the only Power 5 school to pass on Simmons. Several Midwest school recruited him hard from an early stage, but he didn’t get a lot of national attention. Simmons was rated as a three-star recruit and the No. 25 safety in the country coming out of high school, by the 247Sports Composite rankings.

“He had some offers around here, and no disrespect to those places, but they weren’t Clemson,” said Simmons’ high school coach, Chris McCartney. “Around here we have Mizzou, K State, Nebraska... He was getting recruited pretty hard, it just wasn’t national power type schools. He was one of those guys who was kind of a late bloomer.”

Which team? Which position?

While Simmons is now a star on the defensive side of the ball, he played both ways at Olathe North High. He hauled in 29 passes for 994 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior receiver, and several schools were recruiting him to play offense in college.

“His senior year he had a really good year for us at receiver, and he was thinking maybe that would be the direction he would go,” McCartney said.

Nebraska, a school that had recruited Simmons all along, was interested in him playing receiver. As was Michigan, a team that threw its hat into the ring in January of 2016, about a month before Signing Day.

“They were like, ‘We don’t care what you do. You want to come and play both sides? You can do that,’” Victor recalled. “Nebraska said, ‘If you wanna come be a wideout you can do that.’ The same thing with Michigan. Michigan said, ‘I don’t care what you do. I just want you on the team.’”

Simmons was leaning toward attending either Michigan or Nebraska,. Late in the game, Clemson got involved.

Dabo Swinney found out less than a month before Signing Day in 2016 that three of his defensive backs were leaving early for the NFL Draft.

“Well boys, we’ve got three weeks. We’re in the DB business,” Swinney told his staff.

Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables was searching for players he thought could help the Tigers when he was made aware of a potential fit.

“Coach Brent Venables has connections in the Midwest, and so he asked a gentleman that does a lot of the sports reporting up here in our area, ‘Is there anybody up there that we should take a look at?’” Victor explained. “And the guy informed him that, ‘Yeah, there’s this one kid here by the name of Isaiah Simmons who is an incredible athlete.’”

It didn’t take Venables long after checking out Simmons’ film to be sold.

As Victor remembers it, Swinney asked Venables to choose tape of his favorite five players and they would decide on one together to heavily pursue.

“Coach V said to me that once he looked at Isaiah he said he didn’t need to look at anyone else,” Victor recalled. “He said he showed it to coach Swinney and he said it was a unanimous decision to go after Isaiah.”

Within a couple of days, Venables was on a plane to meet Simmons and his family. A couple of days later Venables made a return visit and was joined by Swinney.

Clemson’s staff convinced Simmons and his family to take a visit, and Simmons fell in love with the school.

“What went into his decision making to go to Clemson was that it seemed like family,” Victor said. “He said Michigan just seemed like it was all business. And Clemson seemed like family. He told me and his mother ,‘This is further than I want to go away for school, but I know it’s the best place for me.’”

Becoming a star

Simmons redshirted his first year on campus in order to get bigger, faster and stronger, and he flashed during his redshirt freshman season, recording 49 tackles, including three for loss.

He earned a starting job as a redshirt sophomore in 2018, moving from safety to linebacker, and led the Tigers in tackles in his first season as a starter with 97 as Clemson won its second national title in three years. Simmons filled up the stat sheet with 9.5 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, three forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

He was eligible to turn pro after the 2018 season and was close to doing so, not announcing his decision until the deadline day to declare for the draft.

“The last day was when I definitely decided and it was just best that I came back. I would be selling myself short,” Simmons said. “My goal for this season is to be, if not the best defensive player in the nation, then at least the best linebacker.”

Venables, who is Simmons’ position coach, encouraged his talented playmaker to return for one more year.

“It was good for him because he needed to. It was huge because football’s a developmental game. He’s just now starting to really come into his own,” Venables said. “I told him, ‘You aren’t even scratching the surface of what you’re going to be. If you go to the NFL you’re not a complete player. They’re going to redshirt you. So when you get your one opportunity to make a first impression, you go there and be the best, most prepared you can be.’”

Simmons has certainly taken his game to another level in 2019 and is on pace to have an All-American type year.

“He’s flying around, having fun, playing aggressive and physical,” Venables said. “He shows his range deep. He shows his man coverage. He shows his instincts and his discipline, reading his keys and just playing within the framework of the defense. He’s playing at another level from a confidence standpoint.”

Simmons’ rise from a player that Arkansas didn’t want to one of the best linebackers in college football came from a lot of hard work and determination, but it also helped that he was pushed by Venables.

Clemson’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach is arguably the best assistant in all of college football. He saw the potential in Simmons early and challenged him to reach it.

“I think coach Venables has played a very, very important role in Isaiah’s success, because Isaiah has shared with me a couple of times that he’s been very hard on him,” Victor said. “They push him. They don’t give him a pass. Coach V knows what he can do, and he gets every inch out of Isaiah that he can get. They make him work and it’s paying off.”

If Arkansas would have offered, Simmons could be playing for the Razorbacks. If T.J. Green wouldn’t have turned pro or Venables wouldn’t have gotten a tip, he might be a receiver at Nebraska or Michigan. But Victor and Simmons say it’s clear Simmons is in the right spot.

“Him choosing Clemson and rising to the level of player that he has become on this elite team is just unimaginable,” Victor said.

Added Simmons: “I’m so glad everything worked out how it did.”

Matt Connolly is the Clemson beat writer and covers recruiting and college sports for The State newspaper and The State.com
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