Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons may technically be the Tigers’ strong-side linebacker, but he can line up anywhere and be labeled anything.
Safety. Cornerback. Nickelback. Slot cornerback. Defensive end.
That’s the way he likes it, even if the balance of it all is sometimes tricky.
“I never really wanted to limit myself to one position if I could,” Simmons said. “So, it's a challenge for me each week having to learn everything. But it's something that I enjoy.”
Simmons doesn’t have a favorite spot, but he said he loves to rush quarterbacks — a chess match he’s more than ready for against LSU’s Joe Burrow come Monday night.
Where ever he is, whatever he is, few defenses have found an answer for him.
“He’s a world-class athlete,” fellow linebacker James Skalski said. “There's only so far a scheme can take you. You've gotta make plays, and he's so good at making plays, because he’s special.”
His versatility stands out, so does everything else.
He’s 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, something LSU offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry noticed immediately on tape. "He's huge," Cushenberry said.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney calls his measurables “freaky.”
“He’s going to run probably a 4.4 or better,” Swinney said. “He’s got a 41-inch vertical.”
For comparison’s sake, the NFL Scouting Combine record for a vertical jump by any player is 45 inches. Only eight edge rushers or linebackers have topped 41 inches. Only one linebacker has ever clocked a 40-yard time faster than 4.40 — current Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin at 4.38.
Simmons has 97 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, six pass breakups and a fumble recovery on the season. He leads his team in the first four categories listed.
All of those numbers — stat-wise and measurable-wise — have led to a host of accolades, including the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus Award.
The Butkus Award annually goes to the best linebacker in collegiate football, and was awarded to LSU’s Devin White last year. What makes the honor more unbelievable is Simmons wasn’t a linebacker until two years ago. He made the switch from free safety.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said he approached Simmons about the change, and Simmons was on-board from the jump.
“He said, ‘Coach, I was just thinking the same thing,’” Venables said. “I said, ‘Well, good. You're gonna do it anyway.’ He brings such a dynamic skillset, with length and size. He's a very disruptive player. So trying to get him in more of a playmaking position close to the line of scrimmage where he can do a lot was the idea.”
Year One, last year, didn’t go quite as planned in the regular season. Venables, when describing Simmons’ 2018, made a wave-like motion with his arm.
“The last three games were his best three games,” Venables said, “And the light started to go on.”
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The numbers reflect that. Simmons had five tackles for loss and a shared sack during the regular season last year. In the three-game postseason, Simmons had 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Even then, Simmons didn’t even garner honorable mention status in the ACC’s postseason awards.
“Last year, he didn't get all-ACC credentials, none of that stuff,” Clemson safety Tanner Muse said. “Now he's the Defensive Player of the Year for the ACC and going to be like a top 15 pick.”
Though Simmons’ 2018 wasn’t near the season he’s having this year, Swinney said Simmons still could have declared early for the NFL draft. Now, his draft stock for 2020 continues to rise.
He’s called “a unicorn,” “a hybrid superstar.” Many mock drafts have him inside the first 10 picks, going as high as No. 4 in a couple, all because his versatility paired with his freakish athleticism makes him borderline impossible to contain.
“It's just his knowledge,” Muse said. “He's always been super fast, lengthy. He can jump out the gym. But mentally, his knowledge of the game is really just above and beyond now.”
Simmons went all-in this summer, Venables said, thoroughly studying the defense even more than he did before.
“That let him really just take off as a player,” Venables said.
With one game to go in his career, Simmons faces off against LSU — a team that recognizes how difficult a matchup he presents.
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Burrow said Saturday he’s going to have to locate Simmons on every play.
“What he does best is when they just let him roam the field in the middle and read my eyes, just get all the different throws through the middle of the field,” Burrow said. “I think he's really, really good at that. He's really fast, super explosive, good tackler. He's super tough to defend when he's running that middle of the field.”
And Simmons is ready to make the most of his final college football game — by hopefully adding yet another championship ring to his jewelry box.
“I'm so antsy to play,” Simmons said. “I hate just sitting around waiting to play. But time's here now.”